How to solve a political problem? Cork IT.

 

The announcement by the Minister for Education last Friday that Cork RTC is to be redesignated an Institute of Technology before Christmas brought him a standing ovation in the college and caused champagne to be uncorked by staff. The announcement also brought to an end - at least in Cork - nine months of wrangling and discontent over the failure to redesignate the college last January, when similar status was extended to Waterford RTC.

"In terms of the title I know there is a concern and the title will be changed before Christmas to Cork Institute of Technology," Martin told the audience at a conferring ceremony. He confirmed what had been rumoured since the Minister made clear that he would be attending the graduation. Nevertheless, the actual announcement of the change of title came as something of a surprise to the RTC, which had expected the power to award its own qualifications to devolve to it before the name change was introduced.

To some degree, the change was hastened by the unfortunate interventions of two other Fianna Fail TDs. In years to come, Cork Institute of Technology may have reason to thank Martin Cullen TD and the Minister for Public Affairs, Mary O'Rourke, for the timing of its name change, even if the Minister for Education may feel less inclined to congratulate them for their interventions.

Last January 19th, the then-Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, announced that Waterford Regional Technical College was to be redesignated an Institute of Technology, the first RTC to be upgraded in this way. The change in title had been recommended by the report of the Technical Working Group of the HEA Steering Committee on the Future of Higher Education, known more concisely as the Sexton Report. The report noted the serious shortfall of degree places in the south-east - the degree admission rate for the south-east was 18.5 per cent below the national average - and recommended IT designation as a possible solution.

Not even the most vociferous critics of the Minister's failure to similarly redesignate Cork RTC could argue about the need for degree places in Waterford. However, in Cork and at the remaining RTCs the feeling was that the decision to create "WIT" was made in isolation, in the absence of any criteria for such an upgrading beyond the recommendations of the Sexton Report.

The fury of the response from Cork (and, to a lesser extent, Athlone) clearly took the Department by surprise. Breathnach stuck to her guns, despite its potential ef fect on Labour's vote in Cork: to have caved in to a name change under pressure from Cork would have made a bad situation worse and thrown the whole sector into turmoil. Instead on February 4th, in response to pressure which came largely from Cork, the composition of an expert working group to advise on the evaluation and possible redesignation of RTCs was announced. That group, when it eventually reported in May, recommended that all RTCs be upgraded, with their titles to include the Institute of Technology, under a new Irish National Institute of Technology, a proposal rejected by Waterford on the grounds that it would diminish the effect of its own redesignation. The expert group also came up with a unwieldy system of renaming colleges and recommended a review process for colleges seeking to award their own qualifications.

The group did not set out a framework or a set of criteria which colleges could use to apply for qualification-awarding powers. Even when Micheal Martin, in one of his first acts as Minister, initiated the second incarnation of the expert group in July with a brief to process applications from colleges seeking the power to award their own qualifications, it was largely left to the group to make up the criteria as it went along - hardly an ideal situation for either the expert group or the colleges themselves.

Two members of the expert group, including its chairwoman, Prof Dervilla Donnelly, visited Cork RTC in August. The college made a full presentation to the group in September and was pressing at that stage for the criteria and terms of reference to be established and made available to colleges. In fact, those criteria only emerged last week, but by then Cork RTC was well on the way to completing its own self-evaluation process, a major step on the path to awarding its own qualifications.

Two outside factors then intervened in Cork's favour. The development of the third-level technological sector is a delicate business and Martin has taken a careful approach to dealing with the IT issue. Yet this month his efforts have, perhaps, been undermined by elements in his own party.

Waterford Fianna Fail TD Martin Cullen, announcing a huge £40 million investment in Waterford Institute of Technology over 10 years, told the college that the WIT would continue to be a stand-alone institution even if the proposed Irish National Institute of Technology came into existence as an umbrella body for the former RTCs. The reaction to the announcement in Cork was predictably angry, since Cullen's comments were contrary to written assurances from Breathnach and Martin's own committments on the issue. Aggrieved telephone calls from Cork RTC did nothing to restore the furious Minister's good humour.

Then, last week, Mary O'Rourke told students in Athlone RTC they could expect IT status within weeks. O'Rourke was in the college to accompany presidential candidate Mary McAleese, raising suspicions that this was a cynical effort to garner votes for the FF candidate. The Department of Education appeared to be caught off-guard by her comment and a spokesman refused to back it up, saying only that the Minister shared O'Rourke's confidence in the process as it would apply to Athlone and Cork, which isn't the same thing at all.

Only two colleges, Waterford and Cork, have applied for the power to award their own qualifications under the framework established by the Minister and the expert group. Cork has almost completed its process of self-evaluation and a process of evolution in its awarding powers is one possible eventual outcome, commencing with certificates and diplomas and moving on to degrees. The expert group is also involved in establishing the process as it will apply to Waterford. When he arrived in Cork last Friday, therefore, the Minister had been placed under additional pressure by the actions of his colleagues to clarify Cork's situation. In addition, the students' union in the college, which has been particularly active in campaigning for IT status, had scheduled a meeting for today which could well have resulted in strike action had Martin not made some concession to Cork.

Martin did not refer to Athlone in his speech, but he reaffirmed his commitment to the process and to the eventual inclusion of an IT formulation in the names of each college. There are some indications that this will take place before Christmas but without the necessary legislation to clarify the current situation in the sector, it is unclear how such a name change will affect the enhanced status of Cork and Waterford.

A blanket redesignation, without some acknowledgment of the enhanced status of Cork and Waterford, simply won't wash in those cities.

The Minister has said that he will meet with the directors of the RTCs within the coming weeks for comprehensive discussions on the sector and, following the consultation process, he will be in a position to publish legislation on the development of the technological sector "in a coherent fashion". The developments in Cork and Waterford, the ongoing confusion over TEASTAS and the unhelpful interventions of the Minister's colleagues make the need for this legislation more urgent than ever.