Does Ireland really need more universities?

Jury out on whether technological universities will be more than a name-plate change

(L to R) Minister for Education Richard Bruton, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe,  Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at DIT’s campus in Grangegorman on Tuesday.  Photograph:  Gareth Chaney/Collins.

(L to R) Minister for Education Richard Bruton, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at DIT’s campus in Grangegorman on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins.

 

It’s been hailed, variously, as a “historic” day, a “new era” and a “revolutionary” development by politicans and academics.

But the creation of the State’s first technological university begs a question: do we really need more universities?

DIT, along with IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown, are due to merge to create what will be Ireland’s eighth university early next year.

Other institutes of technology who have formed consortiums in Munster, the south-east and Connacht/Ulster are set to follow.

The rationale offered for this new category of university is that it will boost access, drive regional development and help fulfill students’ potential.

But by any measure, institutes of technology have been doing a good job in this area already. They have been nimble, efficient and effective in meeting regional skills needs.

The jury is out on whether creating technological universities will amount to anything more than an elaborate name-plate change.

Limits

Staff in the institutions, for example, have been guaranteed that they will not be reassigned to another of the merging institutions, which limits the potential for change. Most institutions have also pledged that their course offerings will not be rationalised.

There is also evidence that the criteria required for institutes of technology to secure new technological university status has been dumbed down.

The minimum thresholds required to become a technological university were first set out in 2012, such as the proportion of staff with PhDs and the volume of students involved in research. Some of these criteria have been subtly, but significantly, diluted.

The case for making DIT a technological university is strongest: it has high numbers of post-graduate and PhD students, a strong research track record and more coherent geographical footprint. In many ways, it is a university in all but name.

But the basis for plans to turn institutes of technology into universities elsewhere is shakier. Many will involve forced marriages of institutions, separated over long distances, who have developed close links to their respective communities.

Mergers are always difficult. There is a risk of a loss of identity among some. There may well be fresh outbreaks of resentment over being “lumped” in with other institutions.

Counterparts

An argument in favour of technological universities is that they have the potential to create larger institutions of scale, strength and expertise. However, they will not have the power, freedom or resources to compete with their more established counterparts.

Institutes of technology, for example, do not have the capacity to borrow money or generate income privately in the same way as regular universities. Many are creaking at the seams, have not had any capital investment for years; several are financially vulnerable.

Some of the strongest supporters for technological universities are politicans, and it’s not hard to see why. They will be able to claim to have delivered a “university” for their region.

It also distracts from the fact that the sector - especially institutes of technology - have been starved of funding for most of the past decade.

Institutes of technology should be proud of their track record: they have broadened access to third level and pioneered industry-focused education. There is a danger, now, that they will morph into second-tier universities.