Southeast college merger: a suitable match or a forced marriage?

Waterford Institute of Technology wants to go it alone as a technological university, rather than merge with Carlow IT. Where does that leave third-level education in the region?

Dr Róisín O’Shea at Waterford Institute of Technology: ‘Carlow is still many years away from being able to make the transition to technological university status.’ Photograph: Patrick Browne

Dr Róisín O’Shea at Waterford Institute of Technology: ‘Carlow is still many years away from being able to make the transition to technological university status.’ Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

The long-running saga of Waterford Institute of Technology’s bid for university status has had a few problems of late. There were particular issues when the college decided last October to pull out of a merger process with IT Carlow aimed at making a joint application for technological university status.

Despite Waterford’s suspension of merger talks, the link-up with Carlow seems to be the only option when it comes to an upgrade, at least as far as the Government is concerned. Whether that changes after the next election, when there might be new people making decisions and a new programme for government, remains to be seen.

Waterford Institute of Technology management said after the break-up of negotiations with IT Carlow that it wanted to “determine its own future in an autonomous way”.

In the meantime, some in WIT have voiced concerns that it will take years longer for a merged institution to meet the university criteria than if Waterford were to go it alone. That’s an argument disputed in Carlow.

What’s unarguable is that this path has not been smooth and the ultimate outcome is unclear. After meetings with the Government after the merger suspension, it was announced that Waterford IT’s chairman Donie Ormonde was “stepping down” from his post “to allow for new blood”, and former head of the Higher Education Authority Michael Kelly was parachuted in to consult with the two colleges and “reinvigorate” the process, as the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, put it.

WIT’s governing body initially refused to engage with the review, but a later decision by the governors to meet the expert has put the review somewhat back on track.

There remains, however, significant opposition in Waterford to the merger with Carlow, which for its part resents being portrayed as some kind of “junior partner”.

No one in charge is currently saying anything official in public due to the ongoing meetings held by Kelly, who is due to report to the Government next month. The president of WIT, Ruaidhrí Neavyn, who took over in 2012, having previously been president of IT Carlow, has made no public statement on the issue.

However, IT Carlow said this week it was involved in a “very positive engagement” with Kelly, who has met internal and external stakeholders to get a range of opinions. Support for a technological university in the southeast has been “evident”, according to IT Carlow, and staff and management are looking forward to reading the Kelly report.

 

Reluctance in Waterford

Down in Waterford, engagement has been more reluctant. “That’s going ahead and they’ve all agreed to keep schtum,” says one senior person who is closely involved at WIT and who has concerns about Kelly’s terms of reference. Many feel they are restricted to implementing the Waterford-Carlow merger. “I have no faith in the process . . . They worked for three years to move the Carlow merger ahead and got nowhere.”

The WIT governing body rowed back, and, shortly before Christmas, agreed to engage with the review. Many members have since met Kelly.

“There’s nothing else on his agenda [apart from the merger],” another senior insider at WIT says of the Kelly review. “There’s only one option. If it’s decided that that option isn’t suitable, there will be no university. There’s only one route.”

The Department of Education has stated that the report, which is due by the end of March, will be “based on consultations with the two institutions as well as other stakeholders”.

The department confirmed that Kelly had met the governing bodies of both colleges and reiterated the government’s “commitment to the creation of a multi- campus technological university of the southeast, as outlined in the programme for government”.

As WIT and IT Carlow are the two main third-level institutions in the southeast, those words indicate there will be no straying elsewhere by either college, such as developing a partnership with Cork IT, as some in WIT have suggested (despite Cork’s dalliance with IT Tralee for merger and TU purposes).

Dr Róisín O’Shea, a recent PhD graduate working on a major family law research project at WIT, describes the merger with Carlow as “an arranged marriage between two utterly unsuitable parties”.

She says several staff members she has spoken to feel the same way and think WIT should step back from the current path and apply, under section 9 of the University Act, 1997, for fullblown university status.

But “if we are absolutely locked into a Waterford-Carlow merger”, as seems to be the case under current Government’s policy, “then make it a two-stage process”, she says. “Let WIT move ahead now to upgrading as a technological university, and Carlow, when it meets the criteria in a few years’ time, can then make the transition and complete the merger process.”

She intends to propose this approach to Kelly during consultation. “In terms of meeting the criteria, Carlow is still many years away from being able to make the transition to technological university status. Forcing a merger of both institutes at the same time just doesn’t make sense.”

 

‘Geographically, it doesn’t make sense’

Colette Colfer, a lecturer in world religions in the department of humanities, also believes WIT should have been allowed to go it alone and says others feel the same. “Geographically, it doesn’t make sense to merge with Carlow,” she says. “WIT is genuinely a centre of excellence anyway, with excellent lecturers and research going on.”

The priority should be to establish a university in the southeast, Colfer says. But asked if she is optimistic about this happening anytime soon, her answer is a stark no.

In Carlow, one staff member who wished to remain anonymous says that, according to Government policy, the only way of developing TUs is for ITs to merge and apply jointly. “Across a range of criteria there are complementary skills . . . The biggest misinformation is that any institute can apply or that Waterford can apply in its own right to achieve the university . . . It has to be as a joint [application].”

He says Carlow is “on track” to achieve the designated criteria in postgraduate research, PhD numbers and lifelong learning. “There’s a strong case for a north-south axis for a technological university for the region.”

Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, a well-known physicist at WIT who writes a column for this newspaper’s Science page, says demand for a university in Waterford is driven “primarily” by the city and region, not the college.

“This demand arises from the continuing loss of students to Dublin, a brain drain of young people that makes it difficult to attract industry to the region. In this regard, Waterford’s situation is very different to that of Cork or Dublin, so it’s unfortunate that Waterford now finds itself at the back of the queue in a process of upgrading institutes of technology into universities, a process many academics have great reservations about.”

WIT was founded as one of the country’s network of fledgling regional technical colleges in 1970, as was IT Carlow. In Waterford there are about 10,000 students across schools of business, humanities, health sciences, computing, engineering and lifelong learning and education. The college is known for its research in a number of fields, such as the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group, a high-profile information and communications technology centre at its Carriganore campus west of the city.

There is some concern about the move towards TUs – which was recommended in the Hunt Report some years ago – particularly regarding the implications for humanities departments, but it remains part of the current programme for government.

The issue was recently raised at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee, when Waterford’s Fine Gael TD John Deasy asked if the merger was a “failed one”, and Tom Boland of the Higher Education Authority said it was still “a feasible project”.

Deasy says he has been having meetings with interested parties, along with Carlow TD and party colleague Pat Deering, and they will meet Kelly in the coming weeks.

“What I’m discovering are a lot of agendas which aren’t necessarily good for Waterford or the southeast, and they need to be dealt with.”

For all involved, Kelly’s report is eagerly awaited.

 

 

WHAT MAKES A UNIVERSITY? THE CRITERIA FOR TU STATUS

  • A target of 90 per cent of staff at Level 9 (master’s) of the Hetac qualifications framework, and 45 per cent at Level 10 (doctorate). Currently, there are 89 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively, at WIT; and 96 per cent and 28 per cent at IT Carlow.
  • Target of 4 per cent of postgraduate research students at Levels 9 or 10. Currently, WIT has 3 per cent, while IT Carlow has 2 per cent.
  • Target of 30 per cent of students to be in lifelong learning (mature/returning students). Currently, WIT has 15 per cent, while Carlow has 38 per cent.

 

 

TIMELINE: THE STORY OF THIRD LEVEL IN WATERFORD

1970 Waterford Regional Technical College is founded.

1997 It becomes Waterford Institute of Technology, the first of its kind outside Dublin.

2001 Waterford IT begins conferring its own awards, under standards monitored by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Hetac).

2006 Applies formally for university status, under the Universities Act, 1997 . 2007 Dr Jim Port makes a preliminary assessment of the university application.

2008 Dr Port’s report finds WIT has an “academic maturity and an activity profile (degree and postgraduate training, research and scholarly activity), which overlaps with institutions in the Irish university sector and other western counties”.

2010 The Hunt Report on higher education in Ireland recommends the development of technological universities (TUs).

2011 The new Fine Gael-Labour coalition includes the exploration into the possibility of a multi-campus TU for the southeast in its programme for government.

2014 October 3rd: WIT and IT Carlow formally announce their intention to submit a “joint business plan” for a TU of the southeast to the Higher Education Authority.

October 21st: WIT suspends negotiations on the merger.

November 4th: Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan appoints former HEA chief Michael Kelly to lead a “process of consultation” with both colleges to “reinvigorate” the process. WIT chairman Donie Ormonde steps down.

2015 Michael Kelly (left) begins consultation and is to report by the end of March.

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