Institutes of technology not ready for university status
Research gulf divides higher education
The research-intensive part of the Irish HE system lies in the universities – in 2010/11, the seven universities were responsible for 93 per cent of doctoral candidates in Ireland and 98 per cent of research expenditure.
Higher education is in the throes of change and challenge. Across the world, governments are reforming national systems in the search for prosperity. This is evident in the proliferation of targeted strategic investments in research and education, initiatives which foster a culture of intense competition, of which rankings are one indicator. Competition and internationalisation will intensify over the next 20 years.
In May, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn set out seven objectives for Irish higher education that had phrases such as “world-class”, “excellence in teaching and learning”, “an open and excellent public research system”, “globally competitive” and “internationally oriented”. Yet the sector is experiencing its fifth consecutive cut in funding, draining people and resources from the system.
The State subvention per student has declined significantly because of the cuts and rising student numbers.
Irish academic departments were always small by international standards and the viability of some must now be at stake. Staff/student ratios were historically high and are again significantly above international standards and practice. In 2010/2011, the staff/student ratio in the university system was just over 1:22 and in the institute of technology sector 1:15.
Faced with extensive cuts, it is vital to prioritise. Yet all institutions of technology are being asked to serve multiple agendas and meet a long list of priorities. Although there is a commitment to differentiation, all are being asked to expand numbers, improve access, take on more non-traditional students, become more research intensive and strengthen industry links.
Too many priorities translates into satisficing. Moreover, the major structural change envisaged in the Irish system is the creation of three technological universities by amalgamating a number of existing institutes of technology. We must ask, given the emphasis on flagship universities internationally, if this should be the main focus, or is it a distraction?
High-quality research is a defining feature of a good university. This is dependent on the quality of academic staff. The attraction and retention of scholars rated by their peers internationally is the core business of a university. Everything else flows from this.
The data on the institutes of technology sector starkly demonstrates they lack the essential ingredients for research. In 2010/2011, only 24 per cent of the full-time staff had doctorates. In some of the institutes identified as the nucleus of the new technological universities, the proportion of staff with PhDs is lower than the national average – 20 per cent of full-time staff at Cork IT, and 18 per cent at Carlow IT.