Getting to be a university

Just over twenty years ago the National Institute for Higher Education (Dublin) became Dublin City University. Legally the change came about as a result of the Dublin City University Act 1989, but this piece of legislation was itself the culmination of a detailed and lengthy process of analysis and review. As a result of the statute, the institution could call itself a ‘university’ and was able for the first time to award its own degrees.

While the transition from NIHE to DCU was complex, it is not necessarily so for every institution globally that wants to assume university status. So for example, in May the board of the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, United States, simply voted to change the college’s status, and once certain transitional issues have been resolved the name and status change will take effect. Notre Dame College (not to be confused with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana) is a small women’s college which has, over the years, developed its portfolio to include postgraduate and doctoral degree programmes. Its decision to change, taken after extensive consultation, was intended to reflect the institution’s changing profile.

Right now in Ireland, some of the current institutes of technology are seeking to become universities, while the rest have suggested that, collectively, they may become constituent units of a new federal ‘National Technological University of Ireland’. Within the existing Irish legal framework, in order for any such proposals to become reality, the government must establish an international group of experts to consider the case under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. Without such a process, no institution in Ireland may legally call itself a ‘university’.

I suppose that one of the concerns in Ireland has been that as we seek to develop our credentials in the world as a knowledge society we should be careful about letting institutions adopt the title ‘university’, unless they can demonstrate that they engage in teaching and scholarship of international quality. This concern is heightened by the experience of having some fly-by-night operations claiming to be based in Ireland call themselves a ‘university’. Perhaps unlike the United States, we cannot afford to have our credentials called into question by such bogus institutions.

Nevertheless, are we too cautious about the whole thing? Should we be rather more relaxed about the process that determines transition to university status? It may not be easy to answer that question, or at any rate it isn’t easy unless and until we develop a better understanding of what we think a university is. In particular, how much diversity of mission would we be prepared to accept within the sector?

As President of DCU, I am acutely aware that back in 1989 by no means all of the academic community nationally agreed with the transition of this institution to university status. In the end the case was made by the consistent scholarship of its academics, the strength of its research profile, and the quality of its teaching programmes. I take the view that DCU’s position and role within the university sector stimulated significant changes in all of the universities, and that we have been successful promoters of reform and change within a framework of international excellence. We should allow for the possibility that others can also succeed in such a role. I believe that we must protect the integrity of the academic community, but this should not imply that we can only accept a very traditional model of higher education.

I know very little about the College of Notre Dame, but I wish it well. However, I suspect that in the end some more formal process for authorising a change to university status would be better, provided that such a process is not there mainly to keep out newcomers.

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4 Comments on “Getting to be a university”

  1. cormac Says:

    I always understood that part of the impuetus for the DCU upgrade came from the upgrading of NIHE Limerick. The latter was an inspired move that truly made a difference to Limerick city and the region.
    This is one of the reaons Waterford is so keen for an upgrade; another is that in terms of size, number of degree sudents and research WIT is easily comparable with the then NIHEL.
    I suspect the real bloc is that the government calculates that if one IoT is upgraded, there would be intense political pressure to upgrade all of them in a domino effect – after all, this is exactly what happened when, afetr careul and lengthy analysis, WRTC and Cork RTC were upgraded to IoT status


    • Cormac, I don’t think DCU was given university status on the back of Limerick’s bid!!! In fact, NIHE(D) would have taken the view that they qualified more than Limerick did! But of course we would have supported Limerick also.

      But it also needs to be emphasised that the case for Limerick was not based on what university status would do to the city, but rather what the university had done in its strategic development and its profile.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    The push to have WIT and DIT declared universities is completely counterproductive. Ireland, like all developed economies, requires a tiered higher education system rather than a homogenised one which neglects certain education and training priorities because universities “don’t do that”. This is as misguided a charge to status as the notion that a charge to bigger scale will turn UCD and the University of Dublin into Princeton and Harvard.

    With all due respect to Waterfordians specifically, their status as a city and thereby their implied “deserving” of a university is a historical oddity rather than a demographic and urban form imperative, exacerbated by the GAA jersey mentality which impedes boundary expansion and coherent planning for that urban region (see also Limerick, to a lesser extent).

    If the argument is that the ITs have achieved some kind of numeric critical mass, surely that is more of a point in favour of downsizing those and boosting other further and higher education providers (driving the sort of innovation mentioned in the post above) not to mention whether demographic assessment on whether that growth is outpacing future need rather than a decisive statement on positioning within the education strata. I do not see the NIHEs as forming any sort of precedent – we need to decide these things based on the needs of the 2010s not the 1980s.

    I am quite all right with government certifying the status and nomenclature of educational institutions as a consumer protection measure. Fake schools drawing in foreign students (especially the language schools) hurt a country’s image abroad and part of ensuring a high foreign perception of Irish qualifications is weeding out the charlatans.

    That said, the process for certification should be transparent – it should not be possible for the established institutions to simply be protectionist. I’m sure that when UL, for instance, created their graduate medical school there was disquiet among the undergraduate schools. It’s a tricky thing to balance innovation with ensuring satisfactory educational outcomes for those students whose education is being done on a novel basis.

    Finally, I note that at the higher end of the scale Caltech and MIT do just fine without the “university” moniker. The name isn’t important – the education you get and the perception of that education in the community is what matters – but that involves persuading some people that technological education is part of the highest forms of education rather than some runt second cousin to Arts, Law and Medicine.

  3. Al Says:

    Excellent post Mark!
    The idea that “we,re educators, not trainers” needs to be seriously challenged in this country.
    Skills of whatever level, while initially taught, can only be improved through training.


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