Technological universities to build on strengths of sector

Focus on science and tech programmes that are vocationally and professionally oriented

Ireland’s higher education landscape is undergoing a radical shift. Institutes of Technology became popular in the 1960s and provided pathways for progression into higher education not always within the reach of many young people.

They are coming together to create new technological universities. The new universities will build on the strengths of the sector while giving them the benefits offered by traditional universities.

Technological education has a long history in Ireland, stretching back over 200 years. In Cork the Royal Cork Institution existed from 1807 until 1861, and the Crawford Municipal Technical Institute was founded in 1912,

The idea of establishing a national network of regional technical institutions was first announced by the then minister for education Patrick Hillary in 1963. A year later, a site for an institution in Carlow was identified.

The Investment in Education (1962) and Training of Technicians in Ireland (1964) reports greatly accelerated the trend in Ireland for education reform and development particularly in technical education, similar to that in other western countries at the time.

In his book No Artificial Limits: Ireland’s Regional Technical Colleges, published in 2018, Richard Thorn, president emeritus of the Institute of Technology, Sligo, outlined the history of these institutions over the previous 50-plus years.

At the time of the book’s publication the regional technical colleges had been reclassified as Institutes of Technology, of which at that stage there were 14. The exception to this was Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) which emerged independently of the regional college system.

Joining the CAO club

These institutions gradually integrated into the higher education system through the CAO application process from 1991, to become in many ways indistinguishable from the traditional universities.

Offering originally a balanced mix of certificate and diploma courses, with a minority of level eight honours degrees, these institutes of technology have progressively abandoned their level 6/7 programmes to offer mainly programmes at level 8.

Upon joining the CAO application system in 1991 institutes of technology introduced 30 level 8 degrees to the 120 already offered by the traditional universities plus 233 level 6/7 programmes.

Today in the 2022 application season there are 1,146 level 8 programmes on offer, a growth of more than 750 per cent since 1991 whereas the number of level 6/7 programmes stands at 426, a fraction of the growth of the numbers on offer when the IT’s joined the system.

Meeting expectations

In moving rapidly into the space which had previously been the exclusive preserve of the university sector, the IT’s were responding to the expectations of both parents and young people for higher-level degrees.

The ITs have also progressively moved into the area of Masters offerings, making them in their own eyes on an equal footing with the traditional research universities.

In publishing his history of the technological sector in 2018 Thorn was celebrating their demise as they were about to be redesignated as technological universities.

The year 2022 will see five new technical universities offering programmes across a widely geographically dispersed range of campuses. Of the original 14 ITs only two remain, The Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT) in Dún Laoghaire and Dundalk IT.

IADT is a highly specialist college which offers a unique offering of programmes in the creative arts and is unlikely to fit neatly into an amalgamation with any other IT. It might be a far better fit, as an associate college of one of Dublin’s traditional universities.

Dundalk IT, because of its physical location, has found itself the odd one out as the last of its breed in existence. It might look to pursue its long-term growth strategy in co-operation with the major Further Education institutions in its region in Monaghan and Cavan.

How real is the change from ITs to TUs?

But what of the five new Technological Universities operating across wide geographic distances within their regions? Are they any more than a rebranding exercise? Only time will tell.

From the traditional universities perspective, there is a nervousness that the pot of funding for fourth level research, which to date they regarded as their exclusive preserve, will now be spread across all the universities, thus weakening their position in the hugely important international university rankings published annually.

These rankings determine the decisions of potential students in the lucrative worldwide international fees market, on which all universities depend for a considerable amount of their revenues.

Rebranding

The manufacturers of Mars bars were mystified recently by the sudden growth in sales of their product, when they had not engaged in any specific marketing activity that might explain their sudden good fortune.

Research revealed that the growth was due to the prominence in the media of news relating to the Mars lander which had successfully landed on the planet Mars and started moving around as it began a series of scientific experiments.

Is the redesignation of our institutes of technologies as technological universities an attempt to further increase their prestige in the eyes of potential students by the addition of the word university to their title?

In the mid-1990s in the UK all of their technological colleges were overnight reclassified as universities, much to the confusion of potential applicants.

The UK colleges which had enjoyed the status of universities prior to the change, came up with the ingenious idea of reclassifying themselves as the “Russell Group” to differentiate themselves from the new universities.

Where now for our Technological Universities?

As all proponents of change theory will affirm, meaningful change is extremely difficult to embed in any person or institution. How many new year’s resolutions survive contact with our existing life practices?

To bring about meaningful change within the new TUs which will manifest itself in real improvements in the quality of what occurs in the interaction between student and academic across the 12 colleges involved in this redesignation will only become evident over a period of years.

The pandemic to the rescue?

The explosion in the use of online programmes necessitated by the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 has transformed how we all communicate with each other, and specifically how academic content is delivered and consumed.

The competency levels of academic staff to operate in this new online world has out of necessity gone through a transition which in pre-pandemic times might have taken 20 years to engineer, but it has been achieved in less than two.

Will this unforeseen transformation in our modes of communication become the catalyst around which the original 12 ITs become stronger in their new incarnation and deliver a higher quality of education to all potential learners?

What of the practically oriented learner?

What is of concern is the fear that as the TUs embed their identities as universities they may move away from the vital role they played in the past in supporting the educational journey of the less highly academic student.

We already have a disapprovingly high drop-out rate from many programmes offered by existing ITs due in part to the market-driven move from level 6/7 programmes to level 8.

It would be a huge step backwards in Irish education if in moving our ITs into the university category we failed to provide a genuinely technological route for those students who learn most effectively by doing as opposed to reflecting on lecture content.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times

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