Third-level presidents oppose new university

 

ANY GOVERNMENT plan to establish a new university in the southeast makes no sense when the current system is seriously underfunded and battling for its survival, according to the seven university presidents.

In a confidential discussion paper – due to be considered by the college heads this morning – the presidents warn it would be “reckless” to pursue radical changes to higher education “when the survival of the system is under threat”.

The document – seen by The Irish Times– says any change to the higher education system must recognise “the very poor and deteriorating financial position” of the university sector. The establishment of new technological universities will only “give rise to additional costs and fragmentation of research”.

Several college heads are expected to voice their anger about the proposed new technological university (TU) for the southeast at their meeting in DCU this morning. Both Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and Minister for Public Service Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin are backing moves which would merge the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow and establish a new technological university of the southeast.

One senior university figure said yesterday: “This whole process is being driven by local politics instead of education priorities; we cannot allow it to happen.”

However, supporters in the southeast, who have campaigned for a university for over a decade, say the move could reinvigorate the troubled local economy.

The Higher Education Authority will shortly finalise new criteria governing the establishment of a TU. Once these are approved by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, the institutes in Waterford and Carlow will apply for TU status.

In the Dáil last week Mr Quinn stressed that rigorous criteria would apply. “There will be no political interference from my department or me on that matter, otherwise we will devalue the entire third-level sector in this country.”

In their paper the presidents say there is “no persuasive evidence that the demand for quality, advanced technical education cannot be met within the existing system of seven universities and 14 institutes of technology”.

It says a significant “re-engineering” would be required to bring many ITs up to the standard expected of universities or highly regarded technological universities in other countries.

The research paper points to the relatively low number of PhD students in the institutes when compared to the university sector. It acknowledges, however, that Waterford IT, Cork IT and DIT are different from other institutes in terms of both overall scale and involvement in research and graduate education.

The presidents stress how the funding crisis is the most important issue facing the sector in delivering on its internal goals and on external expectations.

“We know that the system is seriously underfunded. Within the system, there are indications that the IoT sector is relatively better funded than the universities. Therefore, any plans to establish new universities cannot result in a further hollowing out or cannibalisation of university funding.

“This issue needs to be addressed at an early stage with detailed, costed plans for any structural changes and transparency on how [and from what sources] those plans are to be resourced.”

The paper points out how current funding for universities is set to fall by a cumulative 6 per cent to 2015, despite record student demand. There is no indication, it says, that any additional increases in the student charge – if they are introduced – will do any more than offset reductions in exchequer funding.

“It follows that priority must be given to the survival of the system, so policy needs to address this first. Any changes which are introduced need to demonstrably add value. Even before this they must pass the test of first doing no harm to the existing system.”

The paper also suggests there may not be sufficient students with the skills in maths and the sciences to fill courses in any new technological universities. Addressing this issue may require the introduction of points floors for particular courses and/or more rigorous subject specific requirements, it says.

One university president said: “We are not opposed to new universities per se, but they must be a clear economic and social case – and the funding issue must be addressed.”

The paper was prepared by the Irish Universities Association for the HEA.