Institutes of technology are still victims of academic elitism

Leftfield: Institutes of technology have transformed Irish third-level education, but they must still battle negative perceptions

Dundalk Institute of Technology

Dundalk Institute of Technology

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 08:49

The origins of the Institute of Technology (IoT) sector can be traced back to the visionary Mulcahy report of 1967. At the time, the participation in higher education was less than 20 per cent of school leavers and it really was the domain of the elite.

The first regional technical colleges (RTCs) opened in the early 1970. Since then – and their designation as Institutes of Technology in the 1990s – the sector has arguably made the biggest contribution to the enormous growth in higher education participation which is now close to 65 per cent of school leavers.

Today, the numbers of students entering higher education through the doors of the IoT and the universities have equalised. What is different is that many of our IoT students are, like me, the first generation in their families to enter higher education.

The IoTs have had a transformative impact on the regions they serve. They have unquestionably improved the life chances of their graduates, but this will also impact upon future generations since almost all who get a higher education will strive to ensure that their children achieve this too.

The IoTs have contributed greatly to economic and social development. For example, a recent independent study undertaken on the socio-economic impact of Dundalk Institute of Technology showed that for each €1 of Exchequer spend at the institute, the return on that investment is €7.50. The biggest overall impact is on improving workforce productivity in the region it serves.

Despite these positive impacts, the IoT sector continues to battle against negative perceptions and old-fashioned academic elitism. In the debate that has followed publication of various recent reports on the changing higher education landscape, suggestions have been made which would have the potential to undermine or even negate some of the achievements of the sector.

Some commentators appear to have an outdated view of the sector. Prof James Browne of NUIG, writing in this column some weeks ago, proposed that in a cluster arrangement with universities, IoTs could offer “certificates and diplomas”.

This is despite the fact that degrees were introduced in the sector over two decades ago; that they now represent the basic entry level required by most employers in a knowledge-based economy; and that changes to the award structures in the IoTs have been enshrined in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) since 2003-2004. In the same article, Prof Browne only reluctantly accepts that the evolution of some IoT to technological universities is now Government policy.

There may be an element of those who are already in the club not wishing to share the locker room with new members but this is often presented as wishing to ensure the diversity of the overall system. Yes, diversity is important and so is parity of esteem.

Another concern which appears to be made by higher education policy makers only in relation to the IoT sector is to check against “mission drift”. The concern here is to ensure that IoTs remain firmly embedded at levels six and seven on the national framework; and that IoTs refrain from offering programmes in disciplines perceived to be “owned” by the traditional universities. I reject both. The former on the basis of the requirements of our knowledge economy and the latter because the institutes have approached disciplines in innovative ways using their acknowledged strengths in the application of technology.

Rather than accusing the institutes of mission drift we should be acknowledged for our responsiveness to our students, our stakeholders, our regions and our country. Our researchers compete successfully on both national and international platforms for funding and their outputs in defined areas of national strategic relevance are significant.

Over the coming weeks higher education policy makers will make decisions that will have lasting implications for current and future generations. I trust that these decisions will hold true to the vision of Mulcahy in imagining a truly different and enriching experience that is relevant to its students, its time and place.

Denis Cummins is p resident of Dundalk Institute of Technology and c hairman of Institutes of Technology Ireland