Posted tagged ‘College of Notre Dame’

Getting to be a university

June 6, 2010

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.