WIT is the only contender

 

The application by Cork IT for university status is mischievous and groundless. Only the south-east region has a legitimate claim for a new university, writes Ed Walsh.

LED BY CORK, some other Institutes of Technology are ganging-up on Waterford. Cork IT's mischievous application for university status last week - and indications from other ITs that they also cherish university status - is designed to scupper Waterford's strong case for a university. Various IT directors are attempting to intimidate the Minister and Government just weeks before a decision is due on the South-East's case for a university.

Cork is at it again! Some 20 years ago, at the time when the Government was close to making the decision to establish the University of Limerick, the director of RTC Cork is reported to have informed the international assessment team that, because of his strong political connections, Limerick's claim for a university was going nowhere unless RTC Cork was also included. That threat was faced down, and, in the teeth of unrelenting opposition from UCC and RTC Cork, Limerick secured its university. The south-east should persist undaunted: it now remains the only region in Ireland with a legitimate case for a university.

Why should Waterford IT be made into a university and Cork IT not? Simple. Any decision to create a new university should be taken with balanced regional development, rather than institutional aspiration, in mind. In the knowledge economy regional competition is a race for talent. To succeed each city-region needs a competitive research-driven university at its core, complemented by strong institutes of technology.

The Cork region has just that. Waterford does not.

In fact Waterford is the only gateway city-region in the country that does not have a university. As long as this situation prevails the south-east region will linger as it is: in many ways Ireland's most economically disadvantaged. The statistics demonstrate this: young talent drifting away from the region to study at universities elsewhere and not returning; the skills and enterprise profiles of the south-east being the lowest in Ireland. Without a university the region is predestined to continue to lose labour-intensive manufacturing jobs while failing to compete with other regions for replacement knowledge-driven investment.

In contrast the south-west region is prospering, thanks to UCC, its vibrant research university, and the complementary strong Institutes of Technology in Cork and Tralee. The Cork city-region has the right mix of educational institutions to attract investment and compete in the knowledge economy. To create a second university in Cork, Limerick or Galway would be as strategically irrational as leaving the Waterford without one.

The Minister and Government have a dilemma. It is vividly clear that the absence of a university is causing the south-east to lag behind other regions. Yet if the government gives university status to IT Waterford, without a strong rational for doing so, the pressure to do likewise for the other ITs could prove politically challenging.

Just as primary schools don't do the Leaving Certificate, universities don't do plastering and plumbing. Any proposal to re-designate an IT as a university must address the question of how to offer the displaced apprenticeship, technician and sub-degree programmes. Establishing new institutions to fill the gap does not make much sense.

Improving the low international rankings of Ireland's universities is a key challenge the Government has been addressing during the past decade in an effort to strengthen Ireland's competitive position. Granting university status to 14 ITs would undermine this effort, aggravate the university funding predicament and move Ireland's ranking sharply in the wrong direction.

THE SIMPLE REALITYis that there is only one gateway city-region remaining in Ireland without a university: that is Waterford and this must be the focus of attention. Rational analysis of regional need calls for the creation of one more university; and only one more in Ireland. Following the establishment of Waterford's university the door should be securely bolted through decisive government action, ministerial regulation, and if necessary amending legislation. For the foreseeable future, none of the other IT's should be permitted to drift from their important mission and be distracted by pursuit of university status.

When the remarkably effective Community College system was established in the United States the danger of academic drift was correctly anticipated and missions were clearly and legally defined. Community Colleges were encouraged to mount a range of programmes to assist the development of their regions and complement the work of the universities. The highest award was limited to the two-year Associate Degree. Successful graduates from the Community Colleges transfer to other universities to complete a further two years for a Bachelors Degree. This arrangement has proven beneficial for local communities and to be cost effective nationally. Irish government policy should encourage IT academic drift towards the US Community College model rather than otherwise.

When the Regional Technical Colleges were established in Ireland no clear definition of mission was legally specified. At the outset all focussed on sub-degree work. But in the absence of a clearly defined mission, many warm-blooded directors tended to give preference to degree and postgraduate work. Irish educational policies and programmes have served to foster, rather than inhibit, the academic drift of the ITs and the creation of the dilemma now facing the Government.

What should the Government do? The findings of the Port report (commissioned by Mary Hanafin to assess Waterford's case) establish that the academic profile of the Waterford IT justifies, either in UK or Canadian terms, the status of a university. Waterford IT should be established as a university, not because it aspires to be one, but simply because the city-region is unique in not having one and as a result is failing to compete.

Waterford's sub-degree programmes should be transferred to IT Carlow and in particularly to Carlow's Wexford campus: thereby providing a boost to a county that needs it.

The Government should act firmly and face down demands from the other ITs. The mission of an IT should be clearly defined by Ministerial regulation, and, if necessary, by amending legislation, to stem academic drift.

In April, the decision on whether or not Waterford gets its university is due to be taken. If the case for the wellbeing and future prosperity of the south-east is taken seriously it can only result in the Government deciding to establish Ireland's eighth and final university in Waterford.

In taking the decision it must make it vividly clear that this is it: no more universities. The ITs should be guided with necessary firmness towards the work they do so well, that for which they were established.

Dr Edward Walsh is founding president, University of Limerick.