Posted tagged ‘Ireland’

Waterford and Carlow, and the strange tale of a proposed ‘technological university’

October 19, 2015

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

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 or the city for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes 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.

Since 1997 there has been a statutory mechanism for examining the case an institution might make for conversion to university status. Under the Universities Act a panel of national and international experts would be established to examine the application, and would make a recommendation to the government based on criteria set out in the Act. There is at the very least a strongly arguable case that any such application by WIT would succeed.

But that would be all too rational and simple, so of course we cannot do it that way. Partly because Waterford is not the only institute of technology wanting to be re-badged, and because regional political pressures might push the system to consider such ambitions seriously, a much more complex and totally implausible framework has been established, based on the idea that there should be a separate category in Ireland of ‘technological universities’.

The idea of technological universities emerged in the Hunt Report, National Strategy for Higher Education, published in 2011. This report suggested that such institutions could be created by merging clusters of institutes of technology and calling the resulting organization a ‘technological university’. The criteria to be applied, which were to be set out in legislation, do not differ markedly from those we might expect for a university more generally. And before anyone would be able to apply for such status, they would first have to merge with someone else.

There are all sorts of problems with this proposed framework. First of all, contrary to what is suggested in the Hunt report, there is no recognized international concept of a ‘technological university’. There are some institutions with such a name – the Technological University of Munich, and Queensland University of Technology are examples, but these are high value research-intensive universities, and nothing like the concept suggested in Hunt.

Secondly, and crucially, it is completely baffling why anyone would think that a merger should make two institutions more suited to be universities. The Waterford example is an instructive one. As I have suggested (and as many others have also concluded), very good arguments can be made for university status for WIT. However, the institute has been told that it can only be considered for such a status if it first merges with Carlow Institute of Technology. Carlow is a perfectly good institute, but has nowhere near the same claim for university status as Waterford. It has a much more modest research profile, and generally has a profile that is extremely valuable but not typical of a university. So how are we to make sense of the proposition that WIT is not good enough to be a university, but that if it merges with a weaker institute (and one with which it has no record of strategic collaboration) it will be more eligible? Frankly, this is totally crazy.

In fact, the assumption that merged institutions are stronger than individual ones is very questionable. None of the world’s top 20 universities is particularly large. In fact, the world’s top university (according to Times Higher Education) is Caltech, which if it were in Ireland would be the smallest third level institution here. In addition, none of the 100 largest universities in the world are in the top 100 ranked institutions. There simply is no correlation between size and excellence.

Finally, there is no evidence that mergers between institutions based in different locations are a good idea. Those that have been tried have more often than not failed. There is, simply, a need for Irish policy makers more generally to stop thinking of mergers as a good solution to anything. The fixation on this objective has the potential to do damage to the system

It would have to be said that Irish public policy on Irish institutes of technology has gone badly wrong. Rather than trying to force institutions to do something that really makes no sense, it is time to think again.

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.

Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

May 25, 2015

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

Opening new universities

September 8, 2014

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.

Subverting Irish university autonomy

September 24, 2013

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

Irish higher education: mind the funding gap

July 16, 2013

Towards the end of my time as President of Dublin City University, I calculated that over my ten-year term of office the funding received for educating each Irish and EU undergraduate student (the unit of resource) had, after allowing for inflation, decreased by around 40 per cent. With the exception of the student registration charge (which had by then become the ‘student contribution charge’), all funding came from the government. The actual amounts of funding had increased over the period, but this was because of a mixture of inflation and significantly increased student numbers; once you adjusted for that the picture was very different. Even during the affluent Celtic Tiger years the funding in real terms declined significantly.

When the credit crunch and the resulting recession began in 2008, it became clear very quickly that major funding cuts were about to hit the system. Some of this was absorbed through reductions in staff pay, but what was much more significant was the reduction in staff numbers, forced on the system through the notorious ’employment control framework’. The continuing squeeze on budgets has in the meantime also led to other dramatic effects, with universities having to face impossible decisions regarding staffing, library and technology resources, and other such vital parts of the infrastructure.

Nobody doubts that recent Irish governments have had to take very difficult decisions, and it would have been unrealistic to suggest that higher education should (or could) escape that. But it must be remembered that Ireland’s ability to generate either inward investment or indigenous entrepreneurship increasingly depends on a successful university sector. This is now at risk. It would be foolish to think that a starved sector enjoying half of the per capita funding of other OECD countries could compete with them for investment or for skilled leaders.

The problem for Ireland is that very few people are making this point explicitly (although there are some exceptions, including Dick Ahlstrom’s recent piece in the Irish Times). Does anyone know, or say, how much funding a student must attract for that student to be able to receive a quality education? In England Oxford University suggested to the Browne review that it was £16,000. Perhaps more realistically, an American study recently argued that the minimum quality threshold lay at $15,000 per student – roughly €11,500. Ireland’s funding is now very far below that.

Ireland is facing a crisis on a number of fronts, but right now the asset stripping of higher education is creating an additional problem that may make an economic recovery both less likely and much less sustainable. And most alarming of all is that all this is happening with very little public noise, perhaps in part because the system has been distracted by a very doubtful new framework of restructuring. If I were still working in Ireland, I would be very afraid.

The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

January 17, 2013

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.


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