A strong case for a new university


LEFTFIELD:RECENT announcements regarding the development of technological universities have generated no little commentary, much of it territorial and defensive. It is unfortunate too that barbed remarks have been a feature of the discussion; because, in contrast to Sayre’s Law, there is a great deal at stake here.

It is the desire of all the institutes of technology to work together and to rise to the challenge set out in the Hunt Report published last year to meet and exceed the criteria for becoming a technological university. A technological university is characterised by the professional readiness of its graduates and proximity to the world of work. Programme provision will be from higher certificate to doctorate, while its research and innovation mission will stress application and enterprise collaboration. As organisations characterised by their human capital, staff will be as engaged with the business, industrial and professional community, as with academia.

The international dimension is important here. Despite our much-heralded knowledge economy, the European Commission’s Innovation Union 2020 initiative defines Ireland as an innovation follower, rather than an innovation leader. Ireland’s new TUs will have an important role to play in commercialising research and in ensuring knowledge transfer for the economic benefit of society.

Although there was university representation (Dr John Hegarty, former Provost of Trinity College Dublin) on the Strategy Group chaired by Colin Hunt that endorsed the technological universities proposal, the public stance of the universities and the IUA in recent months has sometimes seemed more designed to protect the status quo rather than to develop the new institutional model for third level which Hunt envisaged.

Institutional titles should be of secondary importance when it comes to addressing educational needs. Like any institution, what they are called is far less important than what they do.

The technological university model was carefully considered and discussed in great detail by the Strategy Group for Higher Education. It is not a self-aggrandising ploy by institutes of technology, but a calculated, strategic response to the needs of Irish students, industry and society in the decades ahead.

It is unhelpful that some members of the Government seem happy to apply their fingerprints to the mooted Technological University of the South East. The rigour and excellence of its programmes and research activity should determine whether WIT, or any other institute, merits a changed status, not a politician’s desire to burnish their own local reputation.

We need to apply the best standards and thinking from abroad in deciding how to reconfigure our institutes of technology, and the work of Prof Simon Marginson from the University of Melbourne will continue to be critical in this regard. Prof Marginson has already advised the Department of Education and Skills, and the HEA, on the criteria which will measure the distance which institutes still need to travel before being eligible for consideration as technological universities.

Geography and a sense of place are important, but the recent flurry of announcements about alliances between institutes risks diverting attention from the real purpose of change and reform.

The institutes must capture the people’s imagination and demonstrate that technological universities here will perform a similar valuable role to flagship institutions abroad such as MIT, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon University, Technische Universität München, to mention just a few.

Research will be at the core of the TUs, in terms of research-informed teaching, engagement with industry, innovation and enterprise-support activities. What is sought is depth, rather than breadth, so that the technological universities may develop critical mass and research excellence in a small number of core areas.

The universities and institutes must rise to the challenge of working together to build a third-level sector that meets all stakeholder needs, not descend into rancour and territorial in-fighting.

Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin is President, Athlone Institute of Technology