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.