College mergers will have to be done on a ‘shoestring’

Third-level chief says creation of two technological universities to cost €30 million

 

The creation of technological universities will have to be done in an “innovative, shoestring sort of way” unless additional state funding becomes available, the head of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has admitted.

Tom Boland told an Oireachtas committee that it had only “a small amount of funding” to support the merger of institutes of technolgy and it would be a “challenge” to maintain this funding, let alone add to it.

There is rising concern that the mergers planned for the creation of Technological Universities (TUs) have not been properly costed.

Staff at affected insitutes of technology fear the process will have to be achieved through further efficiencies or cuts in services.

The estimated cost of merging Cork IT and IT Tralee for a TU in Munster is €6.7 million, while the merger of DIT, IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght to create a TU in Dublin will cost an estimated €24 million, documents show.

A panel of international experts which assessed the two proposals has expressed concern at the absense of “further transitional support” to the institutes.

In a report to the HEA late last year, they said: “In our opinion, in the interests of maintaining momentum, minimising overall cost and maximising benefits, some additional financial support would be very helpful.”

But in a recent letter to DIT, seen by The Irish Times, Mr Boland said “any expectation that might be taken from the panel report that additional finance will be given to the consortium to enable it proceed, needs to be tempered against the backdrop of likely available public finances”.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection on Wednesday, Mr Boland defended the HEA’s decision to insist on mergers in the creation of TUs.

“Better technological universities would be created by bigger institutions” and the only way to achieve that was through mergers. He said there were no institutes of technology capable of operating internationally as a TU “with one possible exception” - an apparent reference to DIT.

He said the HEA had received €3 million in recent years to assist in the creation of TUs, and if further funding was not made available these would have to be done in “an innovative, shoestring sort of way”.

Of the planned creation of a further TU in the south-east through the merger of Waterford IT and IT Carlow, he said he was “hopeful” talks would get back on track. Irrespective of the TU plan, he said mergers had a value as “quality is predicated on size and scale”.

On the problems facing third-level generally, Mr Boland said the current fuding system was “not sustainable” , given the growing number of students entering the education system and the drop in resources.

He described as “troubling” the fact that total income per student decreased by 22 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

“This reduction in the resource available is reflected in the reduction in staff. The number has dropped by about 2,000 across the whole system. That’s the equivalent of closing UCD, our largest university, and redistributing all its students across the system.”

Asked what impact this was having on the ground, Mr Boland said “we are not seeing evidence of significant damage to quality currently” but such damage was generally only detected after it was done.

He said there had been a “deterioration in the quality of student experience”, including a perception that students had less connection with academic staff.

Mr Boland said growth in the economy was ahead of target and while this was positive from an exchequer perspective there was an added pressure on third-level institutions to produce high-quality graduates.

Research published by the training agency Solas in 2013 on the basis of ESRI predictions indicated that graduate outflow at the current projected level would fall short by 20 per cent of labour market demand, or 7,000 graduates per year.