Opening new universities

In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.

So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.

This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.

A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.

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8 Comments on “Opening new universities”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    We’re obsessed with organisational structures in Ireland and we equate a simple ‘tidy’ system with a good system. Whether it’s TUs or hospital groups (the latest fad in the health service) we always seem to end up with the same vision, i.e, we’ve no vision except to tinker with structures.

    One of the key problems with the current TU ‘vision’ is that the IoT sector is extremely patchy. Some departments within some institutes are on a par or better than their university counterparts and there are some outstanding individuals in the system as well. But there are also many departments and individuals who are way off the pace.

    The question is then, how do you recognise excellence and encourage more excellence? I’ve an idea on that and will blog about it next week.

    One thing is sure though, the idea that the new TUs will somehow be hubs of applied research, building up the knowledge economy, is completely fanciful. The best universities for start-ups etc. are UCD, UCC and Trinity and that’s because they have the best people and always will.

    One other point; if you look at the CAO statistics, you will see that we are already dipping into the bottom 40% of school leavers to fill our Level 8 (honours degree) programmes. I just don’t think there are the students to go around in an expanded system.

  2. Al Says:

    Hi FVP

    Your use of the word “quality” here might need further development in the context that used it?

    “Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible.”

    This implies that both are doing the same thing but that one is doing it at a lower level? Even if both are IOT’s this isn’t necessarily the case?

    • Greg Foley Says:

      One aspect of ‘quality’ that people neglect is the ‘quality’ of the student intake.

      I often get taken to task for suggesting that this is an issue but if you look at the academic standards of the student intake (as measured by CAO points) there are clearly some IoTs that struggle to attract high calibre students. (Before anyone takes offence here, you should note that there is a clear correlation between non-progression rates, for example, and low points scores – HEA figures.)

      In the case of the Dublin IoTs, Tallaght and Blanchardstown have a preponderance of low-point courses. DIT is quite a bit better in this regard and has quite a few courses with very high points. Now I know that points don’t count for everything but they do mean something – most academics in the third level sector would agree I think. So if DIT were to merge with ITB and ITT, the merged institution would have a weakened student population in comparison with DIT alone.

      Of course, a change to TU status might make all of the IoTs more attractive to students, thus pushing up the calibre of the student intake, but that would be achieved at the expense of the universities. So in effect, you’re just spreading a finite population of capable students around.

      • V.H Says:

        If you’ve not noticed a new and rather nasty version of class and therefore racist cull is going on. Costs of attending 3rd level have rocketed while the grants and aids for those without the wherewithal have reduced.
        Your point about the CAO misses the reason why the numbers are high. If the medical schools took everyone that wanted a degree the points would be low. The CAO is nothing more than a reflection of supply and demand and is as such utterly false. However, when 95% of D6 go to 3rd level and 15% from other larger catchment areas the CAO is in fact nothing more than the old repackaged and sold as progress.
        Of course, that the intake is, in theory at least, better able to deal with the workload if they have higher CAO points. How is it then, given the embryonic geniuses you get in, you aren’t sending out blizzards of Nobel prize winners. What are you doing to them once you’ve gotten hands on them.

        • Greg Foley Says:

          VH,

          I’m not entirely sure what point you’re making but I can assure you I’m well aware that the CAO system is a supply and demand system and I don’t know what I said that made you think I don’t understand that basic fact. If there is a low demand for a course and the ‘currency’ is CAO points, then it follows that the low-demand courses will have low entry points, i.e, the student intake will on average have a poorer academic track record.

          All I am saying is that it is my observation (and that of many others) that the entry points for a course tend to correlate reasonably well with performance at third level at least in the early years. Indeed, the recent paper produced by the excellent stats department of the HEA shows quite clearly that a low points score is associated with increased rates of non-progression. That’s just a fact and whether it is due to a lack of ability or a lack of motivation or social factors is another question. (I suspect that courses whose entry points are have very few first preferences, i.e. little demand, which suggests a lack of motivation on students’ part is a factor.)

          As for the social equity of our system, that’s an entirely different and complicated argument. I like to stick to the data when commenting like this; otherwise it’s just like two blokes arguing in the pub.

          AS for your point about Nobel prizes, that’s just silly.

          • V.H Says:

            Why not have done with any semblance of equity and simply draw from private schools first giving them the choice of the quasi professional courses. Then the established religious schools, Ursulines, CBS’s, what-have-you. Then and only then those that are seen as deserving of firth rate educational chances.
            But oops, isn’t that what’s happening now.
            And it would be a blessed wonder given there is no handicapping that the CAO would produce anything else by way of statistics.

          • Greg Foley Says:

            My understanding is that private schools are very much a Dublin phenomenon but in any event we’ve wandered way of topic.

          • Al Says:

            V.H.’s point on class is very important, but it isnt the same conversation? We tend to ignore it in society until it rears it head, like when people on the radio talk about repossession/ and the entitlement of downsizing to a home of ones social status…

            Guest post from V.H.?


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