Posted tagged ‘Waterford Institute of Technology’

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.


From Waterford to Carlow – the runaway train still on track

September 1, 2015

As evidence of the truth that bad ideas are particularly hard to kill, everyone continues to conspire to ensure that the idiotic notion of a ‘technological university’ for the South-East of Ireland built on a shotgun marriage between Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology comes to pass. What most of us, or maybe any of us, say to this probably makes no difference to those driving this crazy policy, but anyway, I wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Irish Independent.

‘So, we are told that a new “technological university” for the South-East is “back on track”. There is a good case to be made for a normal university for Waterford, but the concept of the multi-campus “technological university” is crazy. What WIT has been told is that it is not qualified to be a university, but that if it merges with a much weaker institution (Carlow IT) located miles away it will be eligible. This makes no sense of any kind, and is a recipe for disaster.

The whole idea of “technological universities” dreamt up in the Hunt Report is badly thought through, and the government really should not be going ahead with it. There is no evidence anywhere that creating multi-location institutions with no track record of strategic collaboration or coordinated provision is a good idea.

This really does need to go back to the drawing board.’

 It will all happen anyway of course. Evidence-based policies are not in fashion.

Talking points: For heaven’s sake stop obsessing about mergers

August 5, 2015

The extraordinary public policy obsession in Ireland with the idea that merged multi-campus institutes of technology must inevitably be more university-like than stand-alone ones continues. A report by the former chair of the Higher Education Authority, Michael Kelly, has just been published and welcomed by the Minister for Education. It is being seen as a potential blueprint for renewed merger discussions between Waterford and Carlow Institutes, as a merger is a requisite for achieving ‘technological university’ status (in itself a very doubtful concept). Michael Kelly’s report, apart from introducing the unattractive acronym TUSE for the proposed ‘technological university’, provides little evidence that a merger would advance the key quality criteria for a university; indeed the report recognises that to date collaboration between the two did not really develop because of the different nature of the two institutes and their lack of physical proximity.

I can absolutely see the case for a University of Waterford. I can see no case for a merger between two largely incompatible institutions, one of which manifestly is not of university level standing. This policy makes no sense whatsoever.

What next for Waterford Institute of Technology?

November 18, 2014

Readers of this blog will know about the problems experienced by Waterford Institute of Technology in its quest to achieve university status. Recently, as was reported here, the Institute decided not to proceed with a merger with Carlow Institute of Technology; a merger of this kind is required by the somewhat bizarre new Irish legislative framework for the awarding of the status of a ‘technological university’. Waterford IT had concluded that the merged institution (if the marriage with Carlow had gone ahead) would actually have reduced its ability to comply with other requirements for university status.

Since then it has been reported that the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ms Jan O’Sullivan, is insisting on the merger and indeed has appointed a former Chair of the Higher Education Authority to mediate. But we have also learned that Waterford Institute will not cooperate with this process and will not go ahead with the merger.

Waterford IT is of course right, and the whole framework for ‘technological universities’ is very questionable. Waterford has a good case to be considered for university status under the old rules of the Universities Act 1997, and that is how the case should be evaluated. There is no basis on which any objective observer could conclude that a Waterford Institute merged with Carlow Institute of Technology has a better case for university status than Waterford has on its own. Carlow IT is not a bad institution, and does some interesting work; but overall it still lacks the activities and indeed the staff that would, at this stage, support university status.

It is time for the Irish authorities to recognise that the higher education ‘landscape’ that has been promoted in recent policy documents doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s time to re-think these plans.

To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

October 28, 2014

One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.

In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.

It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.

All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.

All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.

Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.

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…

The last word in new universities?

January 24, 2012

A quarter century ago neither the university for which I now work, nor the one for which I worked until last spring, had university status. And yet, over the years since they were given this status, both have thrived and have in many ways helped to set the agenda for higher education in their countries. It might therefore be argued that the decision to upgrade them was a good one. So does that mean that we should look positively at other proposals for university status?

This is now a significant issue for a number of reasons. In Ireland, as we have discussed here before, there is a growing expectation that the Institutes of Technology in Waterford and Carlow, and also those in Dublin, will become two ‘technological universities’. In England, in what admittedly is now a rather strange world of higher education, there has been a move to accredit private for-profit universities, the first one of which was BPP University College.

Of course what is going on in England is quite different from the ‘technological university’ question in Ireland. But what they both have in common is the question of what criteria should be used to determine any such change of status. In other words, is the term ‘university’ just another word, and is it in fact a restraint of trade to stop any organisation using it? Or could it be justified to restrict its use to academic institutions that have satisfied certain criteria relating to quality and standards? And because we now live in a highly globalized world, can we realistically expect to be able to stop anyone trading as a university, given that all they’ll have to do is find a country somewhere that doesn’t care and lets them set up a virtual operation?

It seems to me that the protection of the designation ‘university’ is vital but in order to do it effectively there needs to be an international consensus. I also believe that the criteria should be based solely on the capacity of the institution to do what universities do, to a high standard; questions about the need for a university in a particular region, or the importance of private competition, shouldn’t enter into it at all.

In the new world of globalised technology-assisted learning and transnational research, universities will play a key role. We should be open to new institutions in this world; but they in turn should continue to be independent bodies seeking to expand knowledge and stimulate critical inquiry.

An expedited university for Ireland’s South East?

September 9, 2011

According to a report in today’s Irish Times, the Minister for Enterprise and Jobs, Richard Bruton TD, has said the Irish government will ‘“accelerate” the establishment of a technological university in the southeast’, in the aftermath of significant job losses in the region. What is presumably implied in this statement is that proposed new mechanisms for concerting clusters of institutes of technology into a ‘technological university’ will now be fast tracked.

I am not opposed to the new framework, but it needs to be worked out carefully. It will require legislation, and this in turn will have a significant impact on the university system in Ireland more generally. Whether this process should be ‘accelerated’ as a response to disappointing job losses may, it seems to me, be open to some question. It is also somewhat risky to suggest, as the statement does by implication, that establishing a new university in this way will have a quick impact on local employment growth.

It is very understandable that the government wants to be seen to be doing something after recent news, but this is a bigger issue than just renaming Waterford Institute of Technology. Some care needs to be taken to get this right.

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.

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.