And while on the subject of Waterford…

My recent post on this blog about the number of universities in Ireland sparked something of a debate about the campaign to have Waterford Institute of Technology given university status. Over recent years various groups and organisations from Waterford and the South-East of Ireland have argued the case for a university in the city, and indeed there is an online petition.

This particular debate has, with its emphasis on the regional interests of that part of Ireland, perhaps obscured the wider and ultimately rather more important question of what constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide we are still just about maintaining between universities and other tertiary institutions has continued justification. It could be suggested that the conversion of the former polytechnics in Britain to universities helped to establish a settled position that within the overall category of ‘university’ there is room for institutions with very different missions, and that (for example) excellence in research does not need to be a condition. And I hasten to add that Waterford Institute of Technology has achieved some considerable research success.

The arguments for a university in Waterford, as expressed by various local interest groups, have been well articulated. The case against has perhaps been made less explicitly, but on the whole has been based on the view that the institutes of technology have a special mission that includes a commitment to sub-degree level teaching in close coordination with local business needs.

I am raising the issue here not so as to express a view myself, but because I am interested in seeing what the views on this broader issue of university status might be amongst readers of this blog – should they be willing to express them.

In the meantime, some of the issues, and some of the contributions to the debate on Waterford, are set out comprehensively on the 9thlevelireland website.

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21 Comments on “And while on the subject of Waterford…”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    It’s a bit early in the morning, but here are a few thoughts, based on my experiences of the IoT sector.

    First, I think this notion of ‘sub degree’ provision needs to be knocked on the head. The overwhelming majority of students at ITs now go on to complete a degree within their Institute. Those who do not are most likely following specialised programmes tailored to industry or vocational outcomes. For example in my own department at IT Sligo the majority of students will come out with 4 year honours degrees in social studies, fine art, design, performance &c

    Second, the courses are not really focused on ‘local business needs’, Rather they are focused on national and/or international business and vocational needs, but delivered within a regional context. Inevitably, given the spatial distribution of wealth and employment, many graduates of ITs will travel to Dublin, London, Tokyo &c to gain employment, though perhaps returning to their original locale later in life. Universities of course do much of the same thing, but with a focus on law, medicine, architecture and other high-status occupations.

    Third, in my view there are 2 distinctive features of the education that is delivered in the ITs:

    a) ITs provide a genuine broadening of access to third level education. This is not just a matter of socio-economic background (which as we know is crucial to access to specific courses) but also in terms of less obvious cultural and personal factors. Every day I encounter students who do not have the self-confident high-esteem of privilege, but who go on to excel in their programmes. They would most likely never get past first year in the competitive environment of an elite university. I think that just one IT would have a greater impact on social mobility than all the university ‘access’ programmes put together.

    b) ITs provide a mode of teaching that is in most cases far more attuned to the ‘real economy’. This is achieved through recruitment of staff directly from ‘industry’ (which can also be the state or voluntary sector); significant use of work-based placements; and practically-oriented applied teaching styles with much use of applied small-group work. This then ties in directly with the type of level 9 and 10 research work that is carried on in the sector.

    Therefore the issue of ‘university status’ is not the key one, except in some sort of academic beauty contest. Rather it is about defining and gaining acceptance for the unique aspects of what the ITs do, and genuinely valuing that through equality of esteem and application of resources. I have always said that a high quality IT is a much better outcome than a low-quality university.

    Just as most of us in Ireland know a lot about British culture, while they know litttle of ours, I suspect that most people in the Irish university sector (and the university graduates who dominate the Irish elite) know very little about the ITs, and probably have spent very little, if any, time in one. Similarly the ITs are routinely ignored by the media, except when there is an issue around Rag Week. Many of the public still refer to us as ‘the regional’ or ‘the tech’.

    Some of the blame for this probably lies with the sector as a whole, though they have only a fraction of the financial and human resources of the universities – even though the ITs educate over 50% of the undergraduates in Ireland.

    So, to finish (relief all round!) I don’t think the ‘university’ debate is the debate we need to have: rather it is what is the distinctive value of the IT sector, and how can we construct an education policy that supports and develops the unique educational and social contribution – especially the expansion of access – that the Institutes provide? Its a debate I’d like to see, and thanks Ferdinand for making your ‘University’ blog available as a venue!

  2. Vincent Says:

    In theory the way that the Queens Colleges were dispersed across the island was designed to address this very issue.
    The Godless colleges because neither Maynooth or Trinity wanted Theology in the new arrival.
    But these days I believe it is pointless adding new Universities, and further that all the ITs should be rolled into the existing Seven. WIT rolled into the newly named NUI,South. Or with NUI,East(UCD).
    If the Barbers&co can run a place in the Persian Gulf, surely NUI,M(idlands) can run Carlow.

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    All I can do is agree with you; which I will now do at length.

    One of the sicknesses of mind that damages the discussion of higher education and research is this weird idea that there are only two types of third level institution. This is just wrong and one of the consequences is the one we are discussing here, there is a public perception that universities and institutes should principle differentiate themselves regionally. This is nonsense, all universities have both national benefit and scope and a local and role character informed by their setting.

    Now, of course WIT should be allowed to develop in a way that is logical for that institution given its context and strength: what annoys me about the University of the South East lobby is its parochialism, their particular argument seems designed to promote WIT at the expense of the rest of the IT sector. WIT would make a fine university, what ever that means, as a university it would go straight in at 6th: however LIT, CIT and GMIT are also large, impressive institutions and it is hard to argue that DIT isn’t already a university. Even the ITs you hear less about have some strong research groups, Dundalk IT for example, has a strong group working on vascular problems and an established strength in energy research. Even when made on regional grounds, Waterford doesn’t have a unique case, there is also the midlands and AIT and Letterkenny and the north west, though the possibility that there will be a University of Derry complicates that.

    In short, we need to stop thinking about Waterford particularly, this version of the debate is often coloured by negative and sterile considerations of interregional rivalry. Instead, we need to work out how to support a diverse, independent third level sector with a whole range of distinctive institutions. We need a framework that encompasses the small ITs with their focus on local employment needs, the large ITs which are called regional or applied universities elsewhere with a regional focus in teaching along with a few nationally significant research groups, and the current universities with their different characters and strengths. Most of all, we need to stop trying to simplify and limit a sector whose strength lies in complexity and ambition.

  4. cormac Says:

    I think Vincent has it about right and I totally disagree with Aoife. The question is not a parochial about WIT, it is about whether a region the size of the southeast needed a university, and what benefits would have accrued for the region. These sort of questions are very important for Ireland, as regional developments have lagged far behind Dublin.

    It happens there is already a good, solid college in the southeast (WIT),so the debate gets invariably sidetracked into the question as to whether IoTs should be upgraded into a university and what constitutes a university etc etc.. This is a separate debate as it involves many colleges that do not have the regional needs of the southeast.

    So what to do? It’s worth noting that when, after huge strides forward, the former WRTC was upgraded to IT status, there were no plans to upgrade other RTCs – so a sensible solution was effectively undone by the global upgrade of RTCs that followed as a result of intense politicking on the part of Dick Spring and others. There is every reason to believe the same thing would happen should WIT be upgraded to university status.

    So the southeast is stuck, despite the fact that it badly needs a university and that, by another normal measurands, WIT is far ahead of where NIHE Limerick or Dublin were where they were upgraded. All one can hope for is that in the future, international industry, parents and career guidance teachers will have as broad a view of 3rd level institutions as the readers of this blog !

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Just so as to avoid some confusion I felt last time: you are a different Cormac to the great “Cormac O’Raifeartaigh”?

      Rather than reply to your comment can I quote you
      “The question is not a parochial about WIT, it is about whether a region the size of the southeast needed a university, and what benefits would have accrued for the region. These sort of questions are very important for Ireland, as regional developments have lagged far behind Dublin.” and me “In short, we need to stop thinking about Waterford particularly, this version of the debate is often coloured by negative and sterile considerations of interregional rivalry.” and agree that yes, we have completely opposing view points!

  5. cormac Says:

    On the subject of IoTs in general, Perry’s points above are really well made, but I would like to add two:

    1. The so-called ‘mission drift’ of the Iots (we do very few Certs and diplomas now) really arises from industry, not the colleges – the colleges are simply responding to industry demands for degrees and higher degrees.

    2. A drift has also occured in the universities, as traditional programmes become more applied, again driven by industry.

    Given 1. and 2.,the distinction between the 3rd level colleges has become somewhat blurred, and will probably become more so as time goes by. Most academics are aware of this, but international industry is not. Hence, as a Dubliner myself, I understand the Waterford campaign for a university even as I see little prospect of success…

  6. I have added a reference to some of the materials on this issue:

    There are clearly two quite separate issues involved in this debate: the case (or otherwise) for a regional university; and the question as to what criteria should be satisfied if an institution – any institution – wants to transfer to university status.

    Of these two, I am much more sceptical about the regional claim. It is based on the idea that companies invest only where there are universities – and large-scale high value investments in the Midlands and the North-East rather contradict that. The claim is also made based on the arguments put forward by local business interests, but I think that some of those arguments are more about possibly misplaced local pride than real evidence.

    As it happens, I am not opposed to the case being made by Waterford IT itself – it is a fine institution. I might however gently point out that Cormac’s claim about NIHE/DCU in 1989, compared with Waterford now, is highly arguable. The portfolio of activities of NIHE Dublin in 1989 was different from WIT’s now. But it’s a point made in passing, I don’t think it’s critical to the issue.

  7. Joseph Says:

    I have seen a lot of comparisons made beteen the former NIHE Limerick and WIT, the argument made that WIT is of a similar or better standard to the then NIHE Limerick.

    I find this argument flawed. NIHE was established to provide university level education, it’s remit, courses and other academic output accorded to university level.

    WIT on the other hand is a different beast to the then NIHE. It’s original remit and much of its current stucture/output are geared towards non-university technical/vocational training. Yes it has made much progress in research/introduction of university type courses, it sill carries much ‘RTC’ baggage.

    On these ground, I don’t think you can make comparisons between NIHE pre reclassification to university and the WIT.

  8. cormac Says:

    Thanks for the link Ferdinand, very interesting. I also think it’s really good to see at least one commentator separating the argument into 2 issues, one concerning the region and one concerning the whole IoT/university debate.
    On the regions, you might have a point, it’s very hard to pin down the evidence for the claims concerning multinationals -how can really measure this? On the other hand, looking around the city and region, I think they need all the help they can get, especially now!

    On the DCU claim, I disagree with you. As a member of Academic Council, I have seen the stats more than once. Unless someone is lying, in terms of number of degree students, number of higher degree students, research funding, publications, WIT is multiples of where NIHED was in 1989…(see Sunday Times list for figures). For example, are you really suggesting NIHED had 18 million p.a. in research funding in 1989? That said, I accept it’s a bit of a silly argument as time moves on for all institutions ( I doubt if Joeseph above has seen the stats).

    Finally, there is the UK example. I think the general consensus in the UK is that transforming the polys into universities did not benefit the public, the ploys or the universities. However, I’ve never seen any hard data on this, it would be very interesting to see…either way, I don’t know any academic who thinks Ireland needs 20 universities!

    • Cormac, regarding the DCU/WIT comparison, what you set out is not relevant. No university received 18m in research funding in 1989. There simply wasn’t that kind of funding around in those days. If that were the argument, then over half the IoTs should be universities now, as they get more research income than the best university did back then. My point was about the distribution of degree programmes and non-degree programmes (in which for now I would include anything below level 8 programmes), as well as the proportion of staff who are research active. But as I said, I would not use this to argue the case against WIT, which as it happens I think is a case that has some merit.

  9. Yes, fair point. ( How about % success vs other Irish institutions in attracting international research funding?..not great either.) It’s hard to know how to measure these things.Also, it’s not really the point, as you say.
    I think the real point is that a university upgrade in Waterford would likely lead to 20 universities for reasons of realpolitik, a development which would not be a good thing – hence Waterford is stuck with its lot.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      As we have all pointed out, there are two discussions, the future framework for the third level sector, and the future of WIT: one thing I tried to argue above is that the former is a more interesting discussion, one that can be decided in a more reasoned way, so lets have that first since, I believe, a decent conclusion to that discussion would render the Waterford discussion moot: I don’t see why we can’t have 20 universities, though we clearly can’t have 20 internationally recognized research led universities.

  10. Mark Dowling Says:

    The lack of development of Waterford has, to be frank, damn all to do with a university or not. It’s principal problem is that it used to be a Company Town and now that company is dying. The inability of the region to sustain an airport and the poor provision of public transport doesn’t help either, nor did the failure of the Spatial Strategy which should have promoted Waterford over other parish pumps in the region.

    A Boundary Commission would do a hell of a lot more than a University. As it stands, University or no, Limerick City is hobbled by the inability to plan in an integrated manner by encompassing both sides of the Estuary.

    I have always thought that students either explicitly or subliminally receive a bias from teachers in favour of universities since virtually none of them ever went to an IT themselves.

    Finally, the “industry demand for degrees” is curious. It smacks to me of what university educated HR managers look for as opposed to shop floors.

    I left UL with a 4 year degree in Chemistry to find the jobs market geared more to IT grads with certs and diplomas geared to lab technicians. Universities often prepare students for jobs that largely don’t exist (in the tiny R&D sector or the now frozen academic sector) and not for those that do.

    If ITs are now sending students through to full degrees, the Universities should ask themselves what they DIDN’T do in the 80s and 90s to ensure diploma/cert grads flowed through to University and decided to stay in the IT sector.

  11. cormac Says:

    Interesting comments Mark, but I think many would argue that Limerick did benefit significantly by having a university. A necessary, but not sufficient factor. Admiitedly, it’s hard to prove but when you say “the lack of development of Waterford has, to be frank, damn all to do with a university or not”, how do you know this for a fact?” You don’t- nobody does.

    As for Aoife, it seems to me you’re still talking in terms of WIT, whereas the debate is whether Waterford city and region would benefit from a university. It’s much easier to consider this question clearly on its own merits and forget about WIT.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      No, no, my point is only that the most urgent and productive debate concerns the whole sector: lets decide this and maybe the WIT/USE issue will be moot.

  12. Vincent Says:

    As far as foreign investment to a region. Let’s say you personally were going to invest in some corner of a US state that has a community college or in another that has a University. I put it to you that the University would win every time, and if for no other reason that the thing that is a university is a known. While a community college can cover a multitude of sins by comparison.
    In the UK part of the debate ran that opening the Polytechnics went the dilution of the value of the University degree.

    • Vincent, there is a world of a difference between an IoT and a US community college. In fact, given the high profile of MIT, Caltech and Georgia Tech, US companies tend to react very positively to the IoT name. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage at all, as I discovered when I had to persuade an American executive once that ‘Dublin City University’ was at least equal to ‘Athlone Institute of Technology’ (he was assuming the opposite).

      • Vincent Says:

        Ferdinand, was that not my point. That no one knows what exactly one is dealing with, and it is therefore better to sand down the confusion. And as the Seven are not very likely to call themselves IoTs, it is then the question of how best to rationalise the situation. So, to my earlier suggestion, having the IoTs rolled into the existing seven.

  13. Perry Share Says:

    It would be interesting to see what actually lies behind the ‘mission drift’ that Cormac has correctly identified as being a feature of both the IT and the university sectors. This phenomenon of convergence between the sectors is apparently of concern to some policy-makers and commentators, principally those who like their categories to be maintained! But I feel that it is poorly understood and I’d be interested if anyone could point me in the direction of Irish research on this topic.

    I feel that the factors behind mission drift are complex. There may be some demand from industry for higher levels of qualifications, but in my experience this is not universal and often industry reps will argue against educational upgrading, often I suspect because they don’t want their hierarchies disturbed.

    There is certainly student demand for higher levels of qualification. Within the IT sector the great majority of students express a wish to go on to the honours degree level. They usually wish to do this within the same institution: a) because of course they have structured a life around that setting and b) the universities (even where there is a commensurate course) are very poor at facilitating transfer and are often quite insulting in their assessment of the achievements of IT graduates.

    The third factor impacting on mission drift must be the changing nature of learning and knowledge in general. The qualities of graduateness may now embrace team-working, information management, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, problem-solving &c. These capacities may be developed within either a university or IT environment and do not necessarily map easily onto traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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