In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.
So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.
This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.
A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.