Technological universities?

According to the Munster Express regional newspaper, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O’Keeffe TD, told the Waterford Chamber of Commerce that the report of the higher education strategic review steering group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt ‘could have positive news for Waterford IT, Cork IT and Dublin IT.’ For non-Irish readers, these institutions are all designated as ‘Institutes of Technology’, i.e. higher education institutions that do not have university status. Of course the Minister’s teaser could mean anything at all, but given that he was saying this to Waterford businesspeople, he must have intended to hint that the quest for university status was probably going to be successful. Certainly that’s how they picked it up, and if this doesn’t turn out to be the case the Minister might want to decline invitations to speak anywhere in the South-East for a while.

In fact the good people of the Chamber appear to have taken this to be a hint that Waterford (and the other named institutions) were going to be offered a new status of ‘technological university’. This indeed has been a matter of speculation for a while, though not necessarily just in regard to these three institutes. The institute of technology sector, without input from either Waterford IT or DIT (Dublin) who have ben going their own way, has been suggesting for a while that they might be converted into one federal technological university. This case may now be receiving some support, though it is not clear exactly what form such a transformation might take, or which institutions it would affect.

At this point in my career I am most directly associated with two universities, Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Just 25 years ago neither of these was a university, so it would be wrong of me to suggest that such changes of status should not be supported. Indeed, I suspect that a good case can be made for the three institutes in question – though I might add that the case for Waterford has not particularly been helped by the argument used by local government and business interests that Waterford needs a university for business development reasons. That is not a reason at all for a change of status of the institute, and there are other much stronger reasons to do with the academic achievements recorded there.

I would certainly take the view that the time has come for some clarity on this issue. Does Ireland still want or need an institute of technology sector? If so, should this continue to consist of all the current institutions? If not, how does one differentiate between them? Should some of the institutes gain access to the university sector through bilateral arrangements with existing universities? What should happen to the non-degree level training programmes of the institutes? If there is to be a technological university, or several such universities, will these have the same status and roles as the existing universities?

The Hunt report may suggest answers to all of this, but one way or another the government needs to bring the current uncertainty about the future of this sector to an end.

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26 Comments on “Technological universities?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    A few points (time is short!)

    First, where is this Hunt Report? Last we heard it was going to be out in late September (presumably 2010). Now here we are in October – is the thing ever going to be released? Any student seeking this number of extensions on their work would get a pretty hostile reception at this stage.

    Second, what would it mean to say that ITs would have ‘access to the university sector’? Access to what exactly? Presumably to money as many ITs already have award-granting status up to and including PhD. ITs don’t need to be, or be linked to, universities to get money – they just need a national policy that makes a serious effort to recognise the specific role that this sector has. You could list access for excluded groups; specific types of vocational and professional education; education for the creative industries; and innovative approaches to teaching and learning – as well as applied research. I have yet to hear minister for education spell out a clear role for the ITs that does not attempt to subordinate them to the university sector in some way.

    Third, what will the people who currently work in DIT, CIT and WIT gain from ‘university status’? It will be interesting to see – if it happens – whether the staff of the sector will move onto the pay and conditions of the universities, and what the approach of the union, the TUI, will be to the implications of such a move!

    • I agree with you about the Hunt report, Perry – that’s the topic of my piece in the Irish Times tomorrow.

      ‘Access to the university sector’ means access to university-designated degree programmes and qualifications, which many ITs believe is important for recruitment.

      As for the money aspect, universities (and university staff) strongly believe the ITs already get the better deal!

      • Perry Share Says:

        Ferdinand – I read your Irish Times piece with interest. I thought the case for a more holistic and expansive analysis of Irish tertiary education was well made. However I would disagree that the Hunt Report should be delayed any longer. In my view it is hanging like Damocles’ sword over the sector and has the capacity at least to prevent important strategic decisions from being made, locally and nationally. In my view the Minister should get the report out there and let the proper debate begin.

        On the access of ITs to university qualifications, I find it hard to follow the logic here. There are two types of degree qualifications that ITs offer: a) those that are unique to the sector, such as fine art, tourism, social care practice, interior architecture and so on; b) those that are offered in both sectors, such as civil engineering, business/commerce, architecture &c.

        I cannot see why an IT would want to adopt university qualifications in areas that are not the remit of the universities, so can’t see any mileage there. In the case of qualifications that are offered in both sectors, such as civil engineering, these are often governed by external professional bodies and there is no reason to have them further ‘endorsed’ by a university.

        We are all aware of ‘academic drift’, which has seen both the universities and the ITs offering degrees in each other’s ‘traditional’ areas. Thus WIT offers a degree in ‘Arts’ while NUI Maynooth offers a course in product design. There needs to be a renewed (and informed) debate as to the mission of each sector and where the centres of excellence reside. This does not necessarily mean restricting offerings, as there may be strong alternative arguments (eg regional provision) for offering programmes outside of the ‘traditional’ fields of operation.

        But the basis of the discussion should be a parity of esteem. There is a degree of snobbery in relation to the binary divide which is reflected, for example, in the media.

        Currently there are probably areas of both excellence and mediocrity in each part of the tertiary sector and strategic thinking would focus on addressing the current and future strengths of each. This may also relate to the capacity of each sector to deliver education to currently under-represented groups; open and distance learning, CPD and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

        On a final note, I think it is important to maintain the ‘ladder system’ of the ITs in some form – not least as it provides ITs with the flexibility to respond to the need for upskilling and work-based learning. But again there is a need for people to recognise that National Certificates and ordinary BA degrees are important and relevant qualifications in their own right, not inferior to traditional university honours degrees.

  2. Al Says:

    The interaction between politicians and education deserves some attention, especially here with the powerful forces of IMBYISM.
    Rather than having a discussion on what will serve the country best, it comes down to local pressures attempting to make IOTs into Universities, in an effort at self-improvement.
    But is that what is needed in a national plan?

    • Jilly Says:

      No, it certainly isn’t. But I’ve become depressingly used to the fact that this is how Irish politics works: you see it with the health services/independent TDs at the moment, but you see it everywhere, all the time. It’s wrong, destructive and profoundly unprincipled, but on it goes.

      • Vincent Says:

        Jilly; I live in South Tipp and I would happily see STGH wiped from the face of the earth. As would most people that live here. However if you live in west Waterford or west Tipperary most are at least 80 miles from the regional in Waterford. The major Hospitals in Cork or Limerick are far far nearer.
        So until there is a release of people to attend whichever hospital they like or there is a form of air ambulance. There will be a acute hospital at Clonmel.
        This situation is very different to that of the Mater where a totally new hospital should have been built at the junction of the M50 and either the N2 or N3, for 60 years ago that was exactly where it was relatively speaking.

  3. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I am favourable to the idea of letting them be upgraded.

    But in return they should be expected to make sweeping reforms that the Irish third level need to consider.
    One in particular is introducing the summer teaching term.

    (In the subject areas I am familiar with – DIT doesnt need to be upgraded. It is more than able to hold its own in the current incarnation)

    • Al Says:

      It would be equally important to point that that any reformation that may take place be a measured one, and not some management experiment with no understanding of education or the cost of administrative burdens upon a teaching workload.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Explain to me how the ‘summer teaching term’ works in the Irish university sector?

      • Al Says:

        Postgrad supervision??

      • Kevin O'Brien Says:

        I deliberately kept my comment short here, but in previous comments I proposed a summer term based on 1(or maybe 2) week workshops / blockweeks, rather than a conventional 15 week teaching term.

        Also I am specifically referring to STEM subjects, what TUs are likely to specialise in.

        Basic case: Each lecturer will be responsible for giving one module over the summer.
        (When I say basic case – there are plenty of viable and desirable modifications)

        To extend the idea further, world leaders in particular subject areas can come to Ireland and give masterclass. In this case – our lecturers will be the students.

        I discussed this with quite a few lecturers. Obviously they arent mad about the idea, but all reckon it was doable.
        When I added the masterclass part of it -they were mostly favourable.

        • Al Says:

          Interesting idea.
          I would like to see it costed though…

        • Kevin O'Brien Says:

          right – suppose I have to run a one week stats programming course for STEM students during the summer as part of my contract.
          Cost: electricity bill for X computers for one week + likely photocopying costs.

          Suppose the department lets outsiders enrol – the college may even make a profit.

          Consider the cost of keeping the computer labs closed during the summer.

          Hopefully this issue will get more attention in the future, and we could have a full discussion on it. I have plenty more to say on the subject.

        • Al Says:

          Admissions required?
          Canteen facilities?
          Examinations department?

          Is this an accredited module?
          Is it in existance already or does it require validation?
          Should it be accredited?

          “Hopefully this issue will get more attention in the future”
          Can you define this issue further please?

        • Kevin O'Brien Says:

          As regards the other questions: It depends lots of things:
          – Type of material (Access Maths , IT Lab class )
          – who is doing it (Access students, UGs, PGs)
          – Does it need to be graded for ECTS purposes, will a simple Pass or Fail suffice? Is attendence itself enough (re: distribution requirement mentioned previously.)

          There are plenty of other considerations beyond the ones you mention too, but we can come back to it.

        • Al Says:

          I understand more now.
          Interesting times…

          I may have limited resources, time, to contribute to this debate here, but I would like to point out something.

          While one can only improve what one can control, the managerial instinct also needs to recognise that sometimes an individual or group may be best left to their own efforts at maximising outputs or innovating.

        • Kevin O'Brien Says:

          Good point. I feel that for a lot of cases for the hypothetical workshop, conventional grading might be more of a hindrance than a help. In fact participation would better be voluntary; People would attend because they want to attend.

          Yes we can adjourn the discussion until the issue presents itself properly in public discourse.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    Thought it might be that, Al. I think that all lecturers who have postgrads in the IT sector do supervise them over the summer, but this is not captured formally, I admit. And there are significantly fewer lecturers with postgrads in the ITs, probably because the opportunities have been fewer.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      It’s not just that. There are also a number of year long courses too, mainly at masters level but which run from beginning of septermber to end of august the next year

      • Kevin O'Brien Says:

        There is no teaching for anybody. A postgrad is given the summer to write their thesis. Many will go to existing one-week workshops also.

  5. Perry Share Says:

    When I worked in Australia back in the 90s we had the option to teach summer semester (ie Jan-Feb) on an optional basis. There was extra pay of a few thousand dollars and hey I had a mortgage with an interest rate of 18%! I did it for 3 years and I can say that by the third year the continuous teaching had become exhausting. It did impact on the ability to refuel and to prepare properly for the ‘real’ teaching ahead. So an immediate productivity gain was negated by a lack of overall effectiveness. And by that stage interest rates had dropped back to about 8% 🙂 – so I stopped. Its probably compulsory now!

    • Kevin O'Brien Says:

      I am not suggesting anyone works the whole way through the summer. That is just nuts. Each takes charge of one week!.
      Although It would make sense to “go halves” on two. Lets say we are two IT lecturers. I teach a few hours of your Database course , you take a few hours of my Data mining.
      Then another week we decide we need to know more about statistics – so we enroll ourselves as students in someone else’s course.

  6. Francis O'Shea Says:

    Does this report mean the closure of some IT’s or is it just a case of downsizing these third level colleges but still having these institutes operating?

    • Perry Share Says:

      It suggests mergers, and talks about rationalisation. It also presages a major expansion in student numbers across the system. Possible outcome: fewer discrete institutions, but greater number of students, some specialisation but continued local delivery of bread and butter courses.

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