Institutes of technology not ready for university status

Research gulf divides higher education

Higher education is in the throes of change and challenge. Across the world, governments are reforming national systems in the search for prosperity. This is evident in the proliferation of targeted strategic investments in research and education, initiatives which foster a culture of intense competition, of which rankings are one indicator. Competition and internationalisation will intensify over the next 20 years.

In May, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn set out seven objectives for Irish higher education that had phrases such as “world-class”, “excellence in teaching and learning”, “an open and excellent public research system”, “globally competitive” and “internationally oriented”. Yet the sector is experiencing its fifth consecutive cut in funding, draining people and resources from the system.

The State subvention per student has declined significantly because of the cuts and rising student numbers.

Irish academic departments were always small by international standards and the viability of some must now be at stake. Staff/student ratios were historically high and are again significantly above international standards and practice. In 2010/2011, the staff/student ratio in the university system was just over 1:22 and in the institute of technology sector 1:15.


Multiple agendas
Faced with extensive cuts, it is vital to prioritise. Yet all institutions of technology are being asked to serve multiple agendas and meet a long list of priorities. Although there is a commitment to differentiation, all are being asked to expand numbers, improve access, take on more non-traditional students, become more research intensive and strengthen industry links.

Too many priorities translates into satisficing. Moreover, the major structural change envisaged in the Irish system is the creation of three technological universities by amalgamating a number of existing institutes of technology. We must ask, given the emphasis on flagship universities internationally, if this should be the main focus, or is it a distraction?

High-quality research is a defining feature of a good university. This is dependent on the quality of academic staff. The attraction and retention of scholars rated by their peers internationally is the core business of a university. Everything else flows from this.

The data on the institutes of technology sector starkly demonstrates they lack the essential ingredients for research. In 2010/2011, only 24 per cent of the full-time staff had doctorates. In some of the institutes identified as the nucleus of the new technological universities, the proportion of staff with PhDs is lower than the national average – 20 per cent of full-time staff at Cork IT, and 18 per cent at Carlow IT.

Yet this is the basic credential any early-career academic would need to be considered for an academic post. Given competition, most shortlisted candidates will have a post-doctorate, published, and have an international profile. Targets have been set to increase the proportion of staff with doctorates but this misses the point that a PhD is merely a necessary but insufficient credential for an appointment in a university. Much more is required.

The research-intensive part of the Irish higher education system lies in the universities. In 2010/2011, the seven universities were responsible for 93 per cent of doctoral candidates in Ireland, 98 per cent of research expenditure, 99 per cent of research contracts and grants, and 84 per cent of research staff.

The universities had almost 77,000 undergraduate students, just above the institutes of technology’s combined 72,885. But the universities had over 26,000 postgrads and 11,000 international students in contrast to 5,376 postgrads and 1,201 international students in the institutes. DIT is the only institution with a stronger research profile than the norm.

There are many fine technical and technological universities in the US and Europe. They pursue research in engineering, life sciences and business with an emphasis on applied research. They are research-intensive and universities.

Danish model
Take the Technical University of Denmark – it is first in the Nordic region, seventh in Europe and 46th in the world on the Leiden citation impact indicator of top 10 per cent publications. It is a serious player in aquatic research, biomedical engineering and biotechnology. It aims to be global leader in three to five research fields.

Denmark is a country we often seek to emulate in Ireland. It has managed to maintain a strong welfare system with a prosperous economy. One of its strengths is its system of higher education. A related strength is a public policy capacity that allows for robust debate on key policy issues backed by parliamentary accountability untainted by the pervasive localism that undermines the pursuit of the public good in so many policy areas in Ireland.

I understand the desire of some institutes of technology to become technological universities but this status should not be granted unless they meet stringent criteria from countries such as Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.

Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at European University Institute, Florence