Quinn’s reforms

What’s in a name? Why not an “institute of technology”, rather than a “university”? What matters, surely, is the standard and type of education provided. Except that the State’s 14 ITs have long perceived a prejudice against their graduates, wrongly viewed as products of a second-class system. Internationally, they complain, there is confusion about their role although they share universities’ rights to award degrees and have similar quality assurance systems, often using each other’s staff as mutual external examiners.

Names matter. "University" branding was long-cherished by DCU and UL before its was achieved, and the long campaign for a Waterford-based university became the educational equivalent of the drainage of the Shannon.

Now Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has accepted the case for the designation of three technological universities: in Dublin, incorporating the ITs of Dublin, Blanchardstown and Tallaght; in the southwest, Cork and Tralee ITs; and the southeast, Carlow and Waterford. It will come as part of a reorganisation involving the creation of regional clusters of universities and stronger ITs and the rationalisation of teacher education.

The Minister insists that the redesignation is as much about raising academic standards as cost-saving synergies. That will not, however, mean abandoning the more practice-based teaching that has been the distinctive hallmark and strength of the ITs. But the three college groups, which must now prepare plans for integration – to be monitored annually by the Higher Education Authority and Minister – are not guaranteed their new technological university status unless they can show they are moving to appropriate equivalence in terms of staff qualifications, stronger research commitments, and an improved PhD student intake.

That convergence with universities will be a big challenge, not least because of an absence of the extra resources that ITs will need to fund top quality research. But the Minister’s zeal and overdue reforms are to be welcomed.