Technology universities must not forget their local roots

Innovation Talk: institutes and industry support each other’s work symbiotically

 

At the end of May the Cabinet authorised the biggest reorganisation of the higher education sector in the history of the State. It opened the way for the formation of three technological universities in Dublin, the southwest and the southeast, and also initiated plans to join universities and institutes of technology into regional clusters.

The aim is to consolidate the third-level sector and rationalise teacher training, but also improve the capacity of the sector and its 39 State-funded bodies to educate and conduct research.

An interesting aspect of the plan, which was drawn up by the Higher Education Authority and sanctioned by Government after several amendments by the Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn, is the retention of the regionality of our third-level system. One might assume that consolidation could be read as co-location, with colleges merged to form a single combined campus.

However, the four proposed clusters in the west, the south and two in Dublin are not going to be forced to form a mega-campus with a physical merger.

Instead, each partner will retain its current location but learn to operate in a unified and coordinated way to achieve more with the existing investment.

The challenges are immediately apparent – trying to find ways to pretend that the geography of the thing is no obstacle and that a single institution can be run well from two distant locations. Yet it is worth the effort, given the value in having a regional distribution of higher education institutions.

Having a nearby institute of technology or being a university town is a matter of considerable local pride. Regions that haven’t got one want one and those that have want to see them grow. One can also look at why the institutes are there in the first place. Their original role was to provide technical education and deliver graduates who had expertise of value to nearby industries. There was a symbiosis with the institutes supporting the work of industry and industry supporting the work of the institute.

This is still a primary function of the 14 institutes, although their academic mission has broadened considerably as the range of disciplines offered expanded into the humanities and business sectors, and the nature of the academic awards that could be granted rose to include PhDs. The level of interaction between industry and the institutes has also shifted onto a higher plain given a growing capacity to conduct research of value to industries located nearby.

A key role played by Enterprise Ireland is to find ways to make indigenous industry and the institutes collaborate. For example, it funds the Technology Gateway Network, a collection of 12 centres or gateways in eight institutes capable of delivering technology solutions through joint projects.

It is an active programme which since 2008 has completed more than 600 industrial projects with 400 companies worth more than €9 million, 36 per cent of which was contributed by industry, according to Enterprise Ireland. It also seems to be picking up the pace with the figures for 2013 so far standing at 100 projects with 85 companies at a value of €1.55 million with 39 per cent provided by the private sector partners.

The companies get a technical fix, but the institutes benefit too. The arrangement improves the quality of the graduates coming out of the institute who end up with real-world experience and a better chance of landing a job with one of the company partners.

Enterprise Ireland’s remit is much wider, of course, and typically it supports 750 collaborative research projects run by industry and academia each year. The hoped for result is a greater willingness on the part of indigenous companies to use research as a money-making tool that also has the potential to deliver jobs and exports.

The system works because the institutes are not all clustered together, they are distributed around the country, serving industries that set up near them or helping to attract them there in the first place.

The presence of the institutes provides an incentive for industry to set up nearby, and in so doing the incoming businesses help create sustainable local jobs.

Requiring separated campuses to merge would work against this, with industry gravitating towards the single campus rather than clustering around two separate locations.

The institutes have long sought university status and so the three groups were delighted to be offered an opportunity to be amongst the first applicants to seek designation as a technological university. It will be important that they remember their roots when they graduate into these entities, however.

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