Technological university?

In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the President of the Institute of Technology Carlow, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn (who is also the current Chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland), argues the case for the establishment of a ‘Technological University’, and expresses the hope that such a recommendation might emerge from the Higher Education Strategy Review Group. This is actually a reference to the proposal made by the institutes that they should jointly constitute such a university built on a federal structure.

There are two issues wrapped up in this proposal. One is the question as to the status within the higher education sector of the Institutes of Technology, and the question as to whether or how they could be given university status. On the face of it this is a matter to be progressed through the mechanisms of the Universities Act 1977, which sets out the process and the criteria for the establishment of additional universities. This in turn might prompt a discussion as to whether the particular mission of the IOT sector will be enhanced or compromised by such a change of status.

The second issue is one of strategic coordination and collaboration, and whether a federal university emerging from the IOT sector might produce gains in the pooling of resources and the alignment of strategy.

It is of course well known that some of the institutes have, separately, been seeking university status, and that there have been strong campaigns to secure this based both on their record of achievement and on local interests and needs. It is also worth saying that, all in all, the institutes have been a success story in the Irish educational landscape, and they have every right to raise questions about how that success can be developed and enhanced, not just in their interests but in the national interest. As university status has an iconic relevance in higher education, it is not surprising that this is what they are seeking, and I suspect that comments from the university sector about how the institutes are doing a great and necessary job where they currently are can only come across as patronising and self-interested. But equally, the institutes must be aware of the feeling in some university circles that they have received great benefits and are often given better support than the universities, for example in the former benchmarking process to determine salaries and in capital funding. Working conditions are also sometimes considered to be far more favourable in the IOT sector, though admittedly with less attractive ultimate career opportunities.

Perhaps what this needs, and maybe what the strategic review can deliver, is a better understanding of how we view university status and what significance we are to attach to it. At any rate we need to have an answer to the proposals that have been put and that continue to be raised, and we also need to ensure that cooperation between the university and IOT sectors is enhanced.

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8 Comments on “Technological university?”

  1. Brendan Says:

    Perhaps an examination of the impact of NIHE Limerick and NIHE Dublin being awarded university status would shed some light on the potential impact of ‘universitizing’ the ITs.

    • Brendan, I’m not so sure about that. The two NIHEs in Dublin and Limerick were different from what all IOTs are today; they were focused on honours degree programmes and postgraduate study only. I’m not saying that there isn’t a case to be made for the IOTs, but it would have to be a somewhat different one.

  2. Mike Scott Says:

    When I read the title of this posting I must say I expected your comment to be “Hang on, we (DCU) are Ireland’s Technological University!”. Indeed I recall a time when we could make that proud boast. The problem with a technological university is that it tends to suffer from “mission creep”. It doesn’t take long for those smooth-talking Humanities types to worm their way in!

    I note that one of your regular correspondents has the job title of Head of Department of Humanities in an Institute of Technology. Nuff said.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Yes, well that would be me. I would make no apologies for the inclusion of the ‘humanities’ in the IoT sector. Some of the most challenging work in the field is being undertaken in what might be called the ‘technology’ sector, from RMIT in Australia, to MIT in the US, and so on . . .

      ‘Humanities’ is not a particularly useful term. In Ireland a number of disciplines that are largely about the deployment of spoken, textual and visual languages, have been developed and find their home in the IT sector: we could list, for example, marketing, tourism, fine art, design, performing arts, early childhood care and education, social care practice. All of these are vocationally oriented, in the same way that law and medicine are within the university sector. They generally involve the exploration of links between theory and practice, to a greater extent than many university programmes, and work placement is often a crucial element.

      In my department (which is by far the largest in my Institute), there are what I would term ‘professional studies’ in early childhood, advocacy studies, custodial care and social care practice. There are ‘creative studies’ in fine art, creative design and performance studies. All of these programmes feature that combination of theory, reflection and practice that I outlined above.

      The presence of these types of programmes has nothing to do with ‘mission creep’. Indeed they were all developed in the IoT sector and it is the universities who are now creeping into these areas! The idea that the IoTs have some sort of narrow identification with ‘technology’ has never been the case – art, languages and business studies, for example, have been a part of the sector since day 1. In these days where an enthusiasm for the ‘culture industries’ has become fashionable in certain sectors, the notion of splitting technologies of material production and of meaning-production makes even less sense.

  3. John Says:

    While on the one hand there is merit in specialization and ‘doing what you do do well’, there is, on the other hand benefit in the broad church approach. I share an office with lecturers in HRM, marketing, law, languages and drama and have benefited from the intermingling of ideas that results. On several occasions I have based computing case studies on discussions we’ve had on topics from these fields. In their courses too, students study subjects from several disciplines in order, presumably, to broaden them out into rounded individuals and informed members of society.

    So in our IOT there is already this ‘universe’ of ideas and disciplines, and a renaming to university would appear to be a simple recognition of an accomplished fact.

    Regarding ‘status’, we have to deal with a prejudice dating back to Socrates, in which what I call ‘thinker-talker’ subjects are unwisely afforded less status than ‘thinker-creator’ subjects, in which tangible and useful products are produced. While both have their place, it seems to me likely that economic recovery depends at least as much on the latter as the former, and that recognizing this more broadly would attract more of the best students into science, engineering and technology.

  4. cormac Says:

    I must agree that there is much to be said for the IoT sector working as it is – why change it? There is no evidence that upgrading the polytechnics in the UK was an unqualified success for 3rd level education in the UK.
    However, I note that, as ever, Ferdinand lumps all the IoTs together because they have the same name ; have a look at WIT research funding sometime, and compare it to DCU.
    Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by “working conditions are also sometimes considered to be far more favourable in the IOT sector”…try running a research program on top of a 16 hour teaching week…and working in an office with 8 people!

    • Cormac, I guess I was making a statement about the proposal for a Technological University’, and therefore wasn’t commenting about individual institutions; but I take your point. That said, with no disrespect, DCU’s research funding is very much higher than WIT’s – not that this is an argument for or against anything in relation to the issue of university status.

  5. Perry Share Says:

    Its a pity that Neavyn’s article did not actually give any indication of what this Technological University might be. Is it an HSE-like federation of all the existing ITs, which I suspect might not be a good idea, even if it would boast a pretty impressive number of students (more than half of all the undergraduates in the country). The article was really just a plug for some of the virtues of the sector – an opportunity lost.

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