Quinn to approve technology university in southeast

Tue, Jan 17, 2012, 00:00

THE SOUTHEAST is set to win its long battle for university status, despite strong opposition from some university presidents and senior figures in the Higher Education Authority.

Sources say approval for a technological university of the southeast is now “inevitable” as it has strong support from several senior Cabinet figures, including Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin.

Mr Hogan and Mr Howlin represent Kilkenny and Wexford respectively in the Dáil.

The process, which will see the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow transformed into a technological university, begins next month when Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn agrees new authority rules governing the establishment of a technological university.

This will open the way for the institutes of technology to apply for technological university status.

Approval for a technological university of Dublin – bringing together Dublin Institute of Technology and institutes of technology in Tallaght and Blanchardstown – is also thought likely.

One university president said yesterday: “There will be at least one – and possibly more – technological universities up and running before long. That’s certain.”

The debate on recasting the institutes as technological universities has been bitter and divisive over the past six weeks. University presidents have warned the move could damage the international reputation of Irish education by lowering standards.

There has also been a heated debate at the HEA board, with opinion divided about the criteria which institutes should meet before they become eligible to apply for a new status as technological universities.

The authority is due to finalise these rules before the end of the month but sources say the debate is now being led by Ministers.

One senior source said: “The HEA can be as exacting as they like in drawing up the new rules. The southeast region has a very strong political wind behind it. It is getting university status . . . the only question is when.”

The southeast has run a decade-long battle for university status. The region has one of the lowest third-level participation rates in the State.

After the collapse of the TalkTalk call centre with the loss of 575 jobs in October, Mr Hogan and IDA chief executive Barry O’Leary argued that a university in the southeast could transform the region’s troubled economy.

The Hunt report on higher education last year ruled out the establishment of new universities but held out the prospect of some institutes of technology being redesignated as technological universities, provided strict criteria were met.

University presidents say fewer than 20 per cent of academic staff in the institutes hold PhDs compared to an average of more than 75 per cent in the universities.

In recent years, there has been criticism that the institutes – formerly regional technical colleges – have moved away from their original mission of supporting industry. All now offer an extensive range of arts and humanities courses. Under the new rules, the technological universities will be expected to focus on science and technology.

The Hunt report said the field of learning in any new technological universities must be “closely related to labour market skill needs with a particular focus on programmes in science, engineering and technology and including an emphasis on workplace learning”.