Technological universities? A view from the South-East of Ireland

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…

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17 Comments on “Technological universities? A view from the South-East of Ireland”

  1. V.H Says:

    Bavaria is a region, Catalonia is a region even Thrace is a region. Anything 80 miles for the capital is little more than a suburb, the distance from Dublin to Waterford. While from Waterford to Cork is but 60 miles and exactly the same distance is involved between Waterford and Limerick. Carlow to the center of Dublin is 40 miles.
    The argument from population equally spurious for whatever thin one WIT had about 2004 the population has dropped like a stone since. The argument from business and it’s sister investment are largely meaningless. Yes, the WIT would by itself generate spin-off business it is truly hard to see how it would increase with a U before any form of uppercase letters. While investment, or the need for it, implies that there is no investment finance in the South East and that is utterly wrong. In fact the southeast is one of the wealthier areas in the entire EU, it’s just that people don’t want to tax the returns from the agriculture industry. And this absence of investment is historic too. Waterford was the center of major industry but who could involve themselves in it was profoundly restricted. Ask anyone round the south east why you can hear Kilkenny Tipperary and Waterford accents all along the east coast of Canada they will have no conception of just how large an industry spun from the Newfoundland fishery. Nor have they any conception for just how long it ran for. Ever wonder why the Christian Brothers ended up with slightly smaller versions of the Vatican in Waterford and Kilkenny in the space of 50 years of establishment, but you see very little results of this industry elsewhere.
    No, I, along with most see education as a good. However realistically I expect there would be more gain in the closing of 90% of the existing IT’s. They do little for their towns that provide fodder for the landlording sector.
    Why would you hire from an IT when there is no shortage from the universities. In Bristol, side by side, a CV from Trinity or one from WIT.
    Going back to the 1990s. What occurred was a series of rumors that there was an ocean of cash sloshing about for the taking. I remember reading in the Irish Times that Trinity was about to stack the entire acreage of the campus in order to fit more on their site. And I strongly suspect that was the reason for the splitting of the NUI.
    All in all, someone needs to spend a while before a spreadsheet and run the numbers on closing you and the other IT’s down completely versus expansion for the amount of extra good you add certainly isn’t seen in reduced unemployment. And lets face it, it isn’t industry or employment in Waterford you should be education for but for the needs and requirements of Manchester, London and Toronto.

    • bealoideas Says:

      “Ever wonder why the Christian Brothers ended up with slightly smaller versions of the Vatican in Waterford and Kilkenny in the space of 50 years of establishment”

      I have no idea where you got that bizarre idea from. They founded a several of schools, hardly a mini Vatican. Waterford has indeed being significantly neglected for a long time but the future is in bigger cities not Waterford sized urban areas. Investment has to targeted towards Dublin.

      • V.H Says:

        My point is then and now the profits generated in the hinterland are not invested in the area, but sometimes you see the manifestation of the actual wealth.
        Look to and you will see there is an actual choice being made with available investable capital. And the choice is to invest internationally.

        • bealoideas Says:

          I don’t think secondary schools or primary schools are much value for corporate capital (unlike agri-business) and the CB ethos wouldn’t encourage it. Maybe a private university would be but it would take aggressive expansion.

  2. Greg Says:

    Good balanced article, Cormac. I think WIT has the best case of everyone, based on academic and regional considerations but I think if the proposal had been a WIT/CIT/Carlow one, it would be have been even stronger. I think CIT has made a mistake joing up with Tralee – I can’t see what Tralee has to offer. Likewise, I can’t see how Blanchardstown and Tallaght strenghten DIT’s case at all. The big ‘worry’ for me, as you know from my blog, is that we are at saturation point in terms of the number of school leavers who have the academic ability/work ethic to get through 4-year programs. A new TU will only be viable if it takes a substantial number of students from the exisiting universities – there is no reservoir of high calibre students out there.

    PS The whole staff contracts issue is going to be a major minefield and may in fact stop the TU process in its tracks I would have thought.

    • dim.tim Says:

      Greg interesting point about saturation point…. a counter argument is the low levels of participation in 3rd level in the southeast, about half the national average (the primary rationale for the TU). So unless your argument is that the people in the SE are thicker, one has to look at saturation on a region by region basis. In announcing my bias as a WIT person, our motivation for university status is about achieving the kind of regional investment in higher education that Cork/Limerick/Galway get- the last two being cities that are of the same functional size as Waterford. In 1970 Wfd was bigger than Limerick and Galway; but if current national policy continues Wfd will eventually have a much lower carbon footprint!

      Cormac, lovely piece.

  3. Andrew Says:

    A good post Cormac. I think there are a couple of very important points here. One is now we move from a binary system (Universities and IoTs) to a three tiered system of Universities, TUs and IoTs – surely we do not need another layer of complexity? Second is what the proposed TUs will actually be – will they just be rebranded IoTs or will they start to resemble traditional Universities in the work practices and structure, if not their mission. This is pertinent when thinking whether staff student ratios will have to come in line with the much more unfavourable one at Universities (from what I can see ration is typically 1:12-15 in the IoTs, 1:25 in the Universities, it is actually more like 1:35 at NUIM). Also as Greg noted will be be a “deregulation” of contracts in the TUs, will there be staff buy-in and what will the Union (TUI) say – so will the TUs not have contracted hours of teaching per week and much towards a “do what the president tells us” nature of University contracts? Interesting times, I’m sure.

    • Greg Says:

      Actually, it just ocurred to me that people were probably having this very conversation in the 1970s when the NIHEs were formed. The NIHEs were supposed to be a new ‘type’ of third level college, ‘better’ than the RTCs but more industry-focused than the established universities. Of course, the NIHEs eventually morphed into universities and despite all the hype I don’t think we in DCU are much different from UCD and Trinity – just not as good!

  4. cormac Says:

    I’m much in agreement with the comments from Greg and Andrew – it’s hard to know what to make of the news until one knows what the nature of the technological universities is to be. I gather it is something along the lines of ” a new type of third level college, better than the RTCs but more industry-focused than the established universities”, Greg points out was said of the NIHEs, but we don’t have any details yet.
    The staff issue is of course the elephant in the room; up to now, there has been a happy spectrum of some staff strongly engaged in research, some a little, and some not at all; how contract changes can be tackled in the context of a strong teaching union remains to be seen. It’s worth noting that every university dept I have worked in had some staff whose activities were almost entirely teaching, often the backbone of a good degree program – perhaps the government will introduce some sort of sliding scale of taching commitments vs research

  5. Norman Wyse Says:

    @V.H Bavaria and Calatonia are states and the mileages you give from Waterford to Dublin and Cork are wrong.

    Leaving that aside, you’ve provided a wonderful rambling “refutation” of the case for universities in Galway, Limerick and Waterford, at the very least. And yet, no argument for why Waterford must maintain an educational disadvantage relative to those other cities and regions in perpetuity.

    • V.H Says:

      Checked Google Earth before I wrote it this very morning and since the crows were a touch busy I took that rather than ask them how they were making the journey. So shoot me. And you can call the South-East a State if you really want but it won’t change the fact it’s living in the ear of Dublin.

      My point is there is more ‘reason’ to close most of these places than there is to embigen them, Including my place at Galway. And the only reason they are calling them ‘regional’ goes back to when TCD had a conniption when expanding education in Ireland was made an issue and the Queens University was formed scattered all over the place because of those little princesses.'s_University_of_Ireland
      And wittering on about jobs as if the current output is gainfully employed within the region is nothing but pure bull. Et, if the current uni’s and IT’s cannot respond fast enough to changes in the computing industry how will adding more aid things. Agus, that industry is actually expecting kids to educate themselves into potential blind alleys. I was listening to a talking head on the radio last PM who wanted courses in what is expected in 3/5/7 years hence. That’s like betting on the result of the 2018 Gold Cup.

  6. IOK Says:

    Meantime, Georgia Tech is offering Masters in Computer Science for $7000.

    Which would you prefer? A Masters from WIT or from Georgia Tech?

    Whatever you think about online education, it’s relevant for planning any 3rd level education.

  7. Al Says:

    Two points:

    How will the lecturing contract be changed to accomodate the TU format? Especially in the current industrial relations climate.
    I hear that the proposal is to introduce a credits based rather than hours based system and allocate credits based on HETAC level or research.

    The other point is in relation to how the IOT’s are presented as “ready” for TU status based on the percentage of lecturing staff with Masters/ Phd qualifications. But are these qualifications specifically tied into the lecturing or research duties?

  8. cormaccormac Says:

    Al, that’s interesting about the credits system, I hadn’t heard that. I’ not sure how it will work – I assume lecturers at a technological university will still have a good bit more teaching than in a normal university (because the courses are more applied).

    Re the criteria, they have been set out and they’re quite high. Although I have a PhD myself, I’ve never been comfortable with mandatory qualifications across different disciplines because many fields like engineering do not use PhDs in the same way. A lot depends on what is meant by ‘upgrade’ I suppose

    • Al Says:

      My understanding is that there will be different weightings for different hetac levels.
      My point in relation to the criteria is that if effort goes in to increasing the level of qualifications then it shouldn’t be sending everyone off to do an education masters or doctorate. No offense to educational masters or doctors. None were harmed in the making of this post….

  9. cormac Says:

    Re “sending everyone off to do an education masters or doctorate”, as Ian Richardson used to say, you might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

  10. James Fryar Says:

    Interesting article! For me, the issue in Ireland has always been that we have never really had a clear idea of what a ‘university’ or ‘institute of technology’ or ‘national institute of higher education’ actually is. The terms have become meaningless. And a rose by any other name …

    All this semantics nonsense is yet another ploy by yet another Irish government to divert attention away from the fact that our third-level sector is underfunded. We don’t need more universities. We don’t need more ITs. We don’t need some hybrid genetic freak resulting from the mating of the two when we only take in around 40,000 fresher students per year across the entire country.

    What we need is for organisations to have the freedom to set their own agendas, to compete against one another for students, funding, academics, etc and for the taxpayer to provide sufficient funding to make that a reality.

    What we don’t need are politicians announcing ‘name changes’ and ‘affiliations’ and ‘mergers’ which have nothing to do with education or research and everything to do with them hoping to reduce the funding they need to supply to a system already underfunded.

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