Guest post by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics, Waterford Institute of Technology. His own blog can be found here.
The question of technological universities has come to the fore again in Ireland this week. According to an article in Thursday’s Irish Times, the Cabinet has accepted proposals from the Minister for Education and Skills to form three new technological universities from groupings of Institutes of Technology in Dublin (Dublin Institute of Technology, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown), the south-west (Cork Institute of Technology and IT Tralee) and the south-east (Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow). If I understand all this correctly, it is not a final outcome, but another step in an evaluation process that may or may not result in the creation of several technological universities in Ireland. Coincidentally, I had just written a guest post for this blog on the issue of a possible university in the southeast from the perspective of a WIT lecturer. I think it may still be of interest, but bear in mind that it is written from my own perspective, I can’t claim to speak for other WIT lecturers or other colleges…
I took up my current position at Waterford in 1996. Just back from a position as a postdoc at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, I was on a short-term research contract in Trinity College when I saw a job advertisement for a lecturer in physics in the then Waterford Regional Technical College (RTC). I didn’t know much about the RTCs, but my supervisor and colleagues advised me to take a close look – there is a limited number of academic positions in Ireland for scientists and Waterford RTC had quite a good reputation. There was even talk of a university of the south-east, not altogether fanciful given the then recent upgrade of the National Institutes of Higher Education (one of which became Dublin City University). I applied for the job and got it, despite competition from other physics PhD graduates from Trinity, UCD and UCC. I liked the college from day one, there was a good mix of experienced staff from industry and younger lecturers from the postgraduate schools of our universities. The institution was much larger than I expected, with students from Wicklow, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary, and a very positive atmosphere.
The atmosphere improved further when, soon after my arrival, the college was upgraded to the status of an Institute of Technology by the then Minister for Education, Niamh Breathnach. This upgrade was the outcome of a lengthy external evaluation process of teaching and research at the college, and was considered quite an advance at the time. Part of the idea was to give the Waterford college some sort of special status along the lines of DIT, because the south-east city and region had no university. However, other RTCs felt slighted and Waterford’s upgrade triggered campaigns to upgrade other colleges, notably in Cork RTC (a very good college) and Tralee. Within two years, all of the RTCs had been upgraded to Institute of Technology status. Investment in capital and resources for higher education is never a bad thing, but from Waterford’s point of view it was no longer clear what the upgrade really meant – in a sense the region was back to square one. In addition, there was no plan to change work practices in the college, e.g. reduce teaching hours in order to increase research activity. It seemed the ‘upgrade’ had been downgraded to a name change.
Over the years since, the teaching load in the institutes actually increased, from 16 contact hours per week to 18, a very high level that is close to that of secondary school teachers in many countries. At the same time, many of the level 6 and level 7 courses at the college were replaced by degree programs, requiring more challenging preparation. The institutes are often criticized for this latter development (‘mission drift’), but the change was mainly driven by the changing expectations of employers. As for the question of a university for the south-east, it has persisted throughout my career at Waterford, rising and falling in tandem with the fortunes of various politicians and their parties (for example, the question was put in cold storage during the tenure of Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe, a former lecturer at Cork IT, but taken up with great energy by Minister Hogan, who hails from Kilkenny).
Readers of this blog will have read about the issue a hundred times, so I will try and pick out a few points rarely mentioned: 1. Most academics in WIT and elsewhere consider the binary system of universities and institutes of technology a good one. The IoTs were designed to cater for students that often need more intense teaching than their university counterparts, and the complementary system has helped produce graduates in science, engineering and computing. It is very hard to see an argument for 20 Irish universities.
2. However, many education experts (such as Ed Walsh, founder of UL) agree that Waterford is something of an anomaly. The city was unlucky not to get a university in the 1850s, an oversight that surely contributed to the decline of a once major city. This decline persists today – Waterford and the south-east region are one of Ireland’s biggest black spots in terms of education, unemployment, lack of investment and emigration. Because there is no university to serve the city and the region, there remains a strong tendency for the best secondary students to migrate to the larger cities, never returning. This constant braindrain affects the region in many ways – most obviously, it is difficult to persuade industry to invest in a region without a university, completing a vicious circle.
3. Media commentary on the issue almost invariably takes the form of a ‘universities vs institutes’ debate with no mention of regional concerns. Thus the tricky question of regional needs is often framed simplistically as ‘institutes that want to be universities ‘ (see this recent article by Brian Mooney in The Irish Times for example). In fact, the quest for a south-east university is not driven primarily by internal ambitions in WIT, but by the local chamber of commerce, the county council and many other such bodies. Many lecturers at WIT have mixed feelings on the subject, not least because the pressure to do research is much more intense in the university sector. That said, a small number of research groups at WIT have been very successful despite the heavy teaching loads (I try to give a flavour of this challenge in my own recent article in the Irish Times).
4. It is also often suggested in the media that ‘institutes should stick to Certificates and Diplomas’ (see Brian Mooney’s article above for example). WIT is quite focused on employers and our experience is that employers expect and demand degrees for many years now (‘society drift’, if you like). Another factor is the standard of students – because WIT is the only higher education college in a large region, CAO points for courses tend to be quite a lot higher than in some other institutes.
5. The latest plan for the south-east is for WIT and IT Carlow to submit a joint application for technological university status, a strategy suggested by yet another government report (the Hunt report). One can see the sense of this from the point of view of a regional argument, i.e. providing university-level education throughout the southeast. However, it is true that Carlow scores lower than WIT in most of the usual metrics for higher education (demand for courses, research activity etc), so it’s not clear that merging the two colleges improves Waterford’s bid academically.
6. So is all this talk of a university for the south-east just parish pump politics? As a Dubliner, I would argue that it may be an example of the opposite – since Waterford has very little political clout at national level, it be a continuing case of national politics trumping regional needs. While a university would make a big difference to the region, it would also result in great political pressure to upgrade all the other institutes (as happened the last time). Governments tend to avoid such obvious own goals so a university upgrade seems challenging, regardless of regional needs or academic achievements.
Perhaps I’m being pessimistic. In the meantime, a sensible change would be more flexibility on teaching commitments in order to allow an increased emphasis on research in the institutes. Since many courses are now taught to degree level, academic research is more important than in the past. This should be facilitated rather than hindered (the current situation of 4-5 academic staff to an office, lack of professorships and lack of academic career path offers many obstacles to the hard graft of competitive research). However, I’m not hopeful about changes here either, given our difficult economic straits…