To be or not to be a university

Next year, in 2009, twenty years will have passed since DCU became a university. Before that, it was the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). Formally the change came through the Dublin City University Act 1989. However, that Act had only seven sections, and the main changes it introduced were a change of name and the conferring of degree awarding powers. In many other critical respects, the legislation governing DCU remained the National Institute for Higher Education Act 1980, under which the institution was subject to significant ministerial and government direction. Arguably DCU did not become a university in the full sense until the passing of the Universities Act 1997, from which point it was granted the same level of autonomy as the other (older) universities.

Ireland has throughout recent decades had what is generally described as a ‘binary’ higher education system: there are universities, with a teaching and research agenda and with higher levels of independent governance and autonomy; and there are the others, with various differences of nomenclature and status, generally with a teaching-only academic agenda, lower levels of independence, and more direct government control. Until recently one might have added also that these other institutions don’t generally have degree-awarding powers of their own – but that has been changing.

So between 1980 and 1989 – and arguably until 1997 – DCU/NIHE was on the non-university side of the binary divide. However, it refused to resemble the non-university stereotype, both through the development of a vigourous research programme, and also through its determination to drive higher education innovation at all levels. When therefore the government established an expert international panel to assess the case for university status, this panel indicated that NIHE was already operating at university level and was recognised accordingly, and that therefore it (and NIHE Limerick which was considered at the same time for university status) should become a university. So DCU (and the University of Limerick) slipped across the binary divide into the university sector.

Left on the other side were the Regional Technical Colleges (later to become Institutes of Technology), and various other private or special purpose colleges.

In the early 1990s in Britain, all of the polytechnics became universities; this in essence ended the binary divide in the UK at least informal terms; though it could be said that in practice it has remained, for nearly 20 years on in popular parlance and estimation the ex-polytechnics are still considered separate as ‘new universities’.

So apart from the looming anniversary, what is topical about all this? Well, the remaining binary divide in Ireland is coming under significant stress, and there is not a consensus as to how to deal with that. Influenced probably by the transformation of the polytechnics in Britain, a growing number of the Irish Institutes of Technology are putting forward arguments for a similar change here. One of them – Dublin Institute of Technology – made a bid for university status a few years ago and is doing so again now; as is Waterford Institute of Technology. Others again are looking at ways in which they might move quickly to a new status by various methods; and the institutes collectively are trying to persuade the government to explore the possibility if setting up a National Technological University in Ireland, whose constituent colleges would be the existing IoTs.

It would be difficult in some ways for DCU to resist these propositions, given our own history. But one way or another, if we are to make the case for or against another university (while some key commentators are actually calling for reduction in the number), we need to have marshalled our arguments very effectively. And many of these will have to focus on a question that we, as a country, have never tried to answer coherently before: what is a university? What characteristics must it have, what should its mission be? Can (or should) you have as a university an institution whose academic members are not research-active? What level of autonomy and sovereignty of governance should a university have? How should we measure the degree of external recognition that it has achieved?

It is difficult to say whether the binary divide should stay in place. Whatever the right answer is, higher education needs a general consensus about its mission and the institutional structures in which that mission will succeed. The menu of options being presented to us right now is extensive. But if we are to assess in a transparent and effective manner how the sector should develop, we must make a start. We need to ask, and to answer, the question as to what it is that constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide can or should be sustained.

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One Comment on “To be or not to be a university”

  1. martin Says:

    I think it is sad that DCU seems to be hellbent on celebrating its status as an anniversary. By doing this you are perpetuating this notion of a ‘binary’ divide in education.
    I have lived in the UK for a long time and many of us who emigrated in the 80s with an NIHE degree under our arms have done very well. I know the Polytechnic system and the fact is conferring university status did little to change the perception of certain institutions. Once a poly, always a poly. But by gum if you can stick university on your institution, you’re somehow a whole lot better. Clearly this is not the case. NIHE operated like a university was sold to students in its first year as a university, an institution that could confer degrees, unlike for example, the likes of Bolton Street.
    Why draw the distinction? It’s bad branding for NIHE graduates


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