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.