Posted tagged ‘institutes of technology’

There really is a need to re-think ‘Technological Universities’

June 2, 2015

As I have pointed out previously, I am not a supporter of the plans in Ireland to establish ‘technological universities’ through forced marriages between institutes of technology. The very questionable nature of these endeavours is now further underlined by the burgeoning costs of the process of discussion between institutes leading up to the proposed mergers and the subsequent applications for ‘technological university’ status. An article in the Irish Times suggested that the cost of these discussions to date has been ‘over €3 million’, before anybody has even got to the point of a formal merger proposal.

While I genuinely respect those who have been working on the legal framework and in the discussions between institutes, I remain of the view that the whole scheme is daft, based on assumptions that would stand up to very little scrutiny. There may well be a case for assessing whether individual institutes are of university standard, but compelling institutes to merge with each other, creating unwieldy multi-location institutions that will almost certainly run into trouble early on.

I suspect it’s too late, but now would be a good time to re-think the whole framework. It’s costly and complex, and it’s not going to work.

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

May 30, 2013

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…

Establishing new universities in Ireland

June 22, 2011

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes for the time allocated to the meeting to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

In the meantime of course, the report on a National Strategy for Higher Education – the Hunt report – set out a framework for converting clusters of institutes of technology (but not individual institutes) into ‘technological universities’ (chapter 8). The report suggested:

‘There may be a case for facilitating the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities.’

The idea behind this therefore is that ‘technological’ universities would be something generically different from ‘normal’ universities, but would also be something different from existing institutes of technology. This would maintain a binary divide in Irish higher education, but apparently one that is qualitatively different, even if that difference is for now somewhat ill defined.

And so the Higher Education Authority has now published a set of possible criteria for this process, prepared by Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne, and on which the HEA is now inviting comments. In looking at these criteria, I am finding it difficult to see how these would clearly identify a university that is different from at least some of those already having that status. Picking up some of the criteria, they include scale (‘an institution large enough to be comparable with existing universities in Ireland’), international standing (‘developed international collaborations such as joint projects, student and staff exchange, and combined provision of programs’), industry links (‘curricula that are developed in close consultation with business, professional and occupational organizations’), research (‘a research strategy that foregrounds [sic] the applied research mission, links to enterprises and the contribution of the TU to innovation and knowledge transfer’), governance (‘a governing body that includes representatives of enterprises, occupations, professions and local communities’), and so on. While all these criteria would not necessarily describe all existing universities, they do cover things that all universities have or do at least some of the time. The difference appears to be mainly that the ‘technological universities’ will also offer programmes that are below honours degree level (as well as honours and postgraduate programmes).

I might stress here that I am not opposed to university status for Waterford. But I do believe that the criteria already contained in the Universities Act 1997 for university status are sufficient, and I don’t see a compelling reason for having different criteria for other institutions also to be called ‘university’. It will be interesting to see what views and opinions are expressed in response to this document by the HEA.

Hunting for a ‘civic and technological university’ for Dublin

January 10, 2011

Last week the Hunt report was leaked, and it will be formally launched tomorrow (I can’t say I’ve received an invitation to the event); but yesterday it was already being implemented by a number of institutions who have let it be known that they intend to make a joint bid for recognition as a new ‘technological university’. The four in question are the Dublin area institutes of technology: the Dublin Institute of Technology, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown, and the Institute of Technology Tallaght. In confirming their intentions, the four institutions declared they intended to create ‘what will be the university of the future – a civic and technological institution providing a world class experience for students, develop graduates who will respond to the needs of society, and will stand with the leaders among the technological universities across Europe and worldwide’.

It appears that the four institutions are basing their plans on the following statement in the Hunt Report (page 90):

‘Internationally, a technological university is a higher education institution that operates at the highest academic level in an environment that is specifically focused on technology and its application. When, over time, the amalgamated institutes of technology demonstrate significant progress against stated performance criteria, some could potentially be re-designated as technological universities. Amalgamated Institutes seeking such redesignation should pursue a developmental pathway based on delivering against these performance criteria, which are aimed at promoting institutional mergers and ensuring advanced institutional performance within their existing mission. The Technological Universities that emerge from this process should have a distinct mission and character: this will be essential to preserve the diversity that is one of the strengths of Irish higher education.’

In summary, Hunt recommends that institutes of technology should come together in regional clusters, and that any such cluster could seek to become a ‘technological university’. It uses the latter term as if it had an established international meaning that is separate from the more general designation of ‘university’.I am unaware of any such recognised nomenclature or designation anywhere. However Hunt appears to be suggesting that the culture and ethos of the existing institutes could be preserved if a ‘technological university’ could be recognised as a different type of entity. The four institutions in question appear to have latched on to this quickly and are preparing to initiate the process that might lead to such an outcome, apparently (they hope) in a very short timescale.

I do not myself have any fundamental objection to a re-designation, but would have doubts about whether a distinction between a ‘university’ and a technological university’ is a viable one. There is already room for considerable diversity of mission within the term ‘university’. While the plan of the four institutes should be taken seriously and received and debated positively and constructively, it might not be a good idea to rush this process, and the idea of a separate designation of ‘technological university’ is, to my mind, a doubtful one.

Technological universities?

October 4, 2010

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.

Holiday times

July 5, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Yesterday I was at a reception and chatted with a group of entirely pleasant people whom I hadn’t met before, and who came from various professions and walks of life. One of them said to me, very pleasantly: ‘It must be so nice for you and your colleagues to have this lovely holiday between now and September.’ Everyone nodded. As I said, they were very nice people. In fact, I had to keep telling myself they were very nice people, because unless I convinced myself of that on the spot I was going to have to hit them, causing a nasty incident with journalists present. So instead, putting on my most patient and friendly voice, I pointed out that university lecturers certainly don’t have three months off in the summer, and that overwhelmingly they wouldn’t be away for more than three weeks or so, and some a lot less. ‘Of course, of course’, they replied in an indulgent tone. They didn’t believe a word I had said, but they weren’t going to provoke an argument.

I suspect this is the kind of infuriating moment that many academics experience. And while I stand over my reply to these nice people, I also know that my case is weakened by the fact that a lot of people in the education sector do have a lot of time off in the summer. I remember that when I returned to Ireland from the UK in 2000 to take up the presidency of DCU, I took our children from their English school and transferred them here. And at first I simply could not believe that the summer holidays here began at the end of May for most secondary students. I really couldn’t believe it. In the UK it would have been late July. When I went to secondary school in Germany the summer holidays were exactly six weeks long, and teachers were only able to take just under four of those.

But it’s not just schools. Our colleagues in the Institute of Technology sector in Ireland have contractual rights to summer holidays stretching over two months and more. And so, because there is no contractual position we could cite when having annoying conversations like mine yesterday, absolutely nobody believes that the position in universities is different. And yet, it is – emphatically. Over the summer my staff in DCU are expected to work on their research, organise or attend or speak at conferences, prepare the next year’s syllabus, supervise research students, teach on postgraduate programmes running over the summer, and do countless other things that they will need to get done in order to progress their careers. But the world outside believes they are all sitting by some swimming pool in Tenerife or perfecting their golf. And because we have been so unconvincing, those who comment on academic performance and sometimes take decisions on pay and other matters often conclude that university academics work less and less hard than those employed by institutes of technology.

This is another one of those cases where we have to gather and publish reliable data that can be used to rebut such comments, because if we don’t we will continue to be treated as work-shy. But we must also face up to the fact that the terms of employment in education more generally as regards summer vacations are no longer really acceptable and will have to be re-thought. The time is right for reform.

Dublin to have a ‘super Institute’?

June 18, 2010

Yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper reported that four institutes of technology – Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Blanchardstown IOT, Tallaght IOT and Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology have been in ‘secret talks’ to create a ‘combined super Institute of Technology’. Initially it appears that the collaboration will, if agreed, focus on avoiding programme duplication and on shared support services, but the longer term objective could be a united institute.

All of this is of course connected with the question of what should happen to the institutes of technology. Should they stay as they are, should they join in regional alliances or linkages with universities (the ‘clustering’ idea), should they individually or in groups seek university status? And in all this, how will the mission of this sector be developed, and will it still be distinct from that of the current universities?

Some of these questions may be addressed by the Higher Education Strategic Review when its report is published. But in the meantime it is clear that the institute of technology sector is in flux, and is unlikely to survive in quite its current form.

Technological university?

March 25, 2010

In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the President of the Institute of Technology Carlow, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn (who is also the current Chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland), argues the case for the establishment of a ‘Technological University’, and expresses the hope that such a recommendation might emerge from the Higher Education Strategy Review Group. This is actually a reference to the proposal made by the institutes that they should jointly constitute such a university built on a federal structure.

There are two issues wrapped up in this proposal. One is the question as to the status within the higher education sector of the Institutes of Technology, and the question as to whether or how they could be given university status. On the face of it this is a matter to be progressed through the mechanisms of the Universities Act 1977, which sets out the process and the criteria for the establishment of additional universities. This in turn might prompt a discussion as to whether the particular mission of the IOT sector will be enhanced or compromised by such a change of status.

The second issue is one of strategic coordination and collaboration, and whether a federal university emerging from the IOT sector might produce gains in the pooling of resources and the alignment of strategy.

It is of course well known that some of the institutes have, separately, been seeking university status, and that there have been strong campaigns to secure this based both on their record of achievement and on local interests and needs. It is also worth saying that, all in all, the institutes have been a success story in the Irish educational landscape, and they have every right to raise questions about how that success can be developed and enhanced, not just in their interests but in the national interest. As university status has an iconic relevance in higher education, it is not surprising that this is what they are seeking, and I suspect that comments from the university sector about how the institutes are doing a great and necessary job where they currently are can only come across as patronising and self-interested. But equally, the institutes must be aware of the feeling in some university circles that they have received great benefits and are often given better support than the universities, for example in the former benchmarking process to determine salaries and in capital funding. Working conditions are also sometimes considered to be far more favourable in the IOT sector, though admittedly with less attractive ultimate career opportunities.

Perhaps what this needs, and maybe what the strategic review can deliver, is a better understanding of how we view university status and what significance we are to attach to it. At any rate we need to have an answer to the proposals that have been put and that continue to be raised, and we also need to ensure that cooperation between the university and IOT sectors is enhanced.

To be or not to be a university

December 12, 2008

Next year, in 2009, twenty years will have passed since DCU became a university. Before that, it was the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). Formally the change came through the Dublin City University Act 1989. However, that Act had only seven sections, and the main changes it introduced were a change of name and the conferring of degree awarding powers. In many other critical respects, the legislation governing DCU remained the National Institute for Higher Education Act 1980, under which the institution was subject to significant ministerial and government direction. Arguably DCU did not become a university in the full sense until the passing of the Universities Act 1997, from which point it was granted the same level of autonomy as the other (older) universities.

Ireland has throughout recent decades had what is generally described as a ‘binary’ higher education system: there are universities, with a teaching and research agenda and with higher levels of independent governance and autonomy; and there are the others, with various differences of nomenclature and status, generally with a teaching-only academic agenda, lower levels of independence, and more direct government control. Until recently one might have added also that these other institutions don’t generally have degree-awarding powers of their own – but that has been changing.

So between 1980 and 1989 – and arguably until 1997 – DCU/NIHE was on the non-university side of the binary divide. However, it refused to resemble the non-university stereotype, both through the development of a vigourous research programme, and also through its determination to drive higher education innovation at all levels. When therefore the government established an expert international panel to assess the case for university status, this panel indicated that NIHE was already operating at university level and was recognised accordingly, and that therefore it (and NIHE Limerick which was considered at the same time for university status) should become a university. So DCU (and the University of Limerick) slipped across the binary divide into the university sector.

Left on the other side were the Regional Technical Colleges (later to become Institutes of Technology), and various other private or special purpose colleges.

In the early 1990s in Britain, all of the polytechnics became universities; this in essence ended the binary divide in the UK at least informal terms; though it could be said that in practice it has remained, for nearly 20 years on in popular parlance and estimation the ex-polytechnics are still considered separate as ‘new universities’.

So apart from the looming anniversary, what is topical about all this? Well, the remaining binary divide in Ireland is coming under significant stress, and there is not a consensus as to how to deal with that. Influenced probably by the transformation of the polytechnics in Britain, a growing number of the Irish Institutes of Technology are putting forward arguments for a similar change here. One of them – Dublin Institute of Technology – made a bid for university status a few years ago and is doing so again now; as is Waterford Institute of Technology. Others again are looking at ways in which they might move quickly to a new status by various methods; and the institutes collectively are trying to persuade the government to explore the possibility if setting up a National Technological University in Ireland, whose constituent colleges would be the existing IoTs.

It would be difficult in some ways for DCU to resist these propositions, given our own history. But one way or another, if we are to make the case for or against another university (while some key commentators are actually calling for reduction in the number), we need to have marshalled our arguments very effectively. And many of these will have to focus on a question that we, as a country, have never tried to answer coherently before: what is a university? What characteristics must it have, what should its mission be? Can (or should) you have as a university an institution whose academic members are not research-active? What level of autonomy and sovereignty of governance should a university have? How should we measure the degree of external recognition that it has achieved?

It is difficult to say whether the binary divide should stay in place. Whatever the right answer is, higher education needs a general consensus about its mission and the institutional structures in which that mission will succeed. The menu of options being presented to us right now is extensive. But if we are to assess in a transparent and effective manner how the sector should develop, we must make a start. We need to ask, and to answer, the question as to what it is that constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide can or should be sustained.