Southeast university designation possible ‘within three years’

Report says ‘no alternative’ to merger between Waterford IT and IT Carlow

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan said the leadership of both institutions have put forward an ambitious vision for a new type of institution. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan said the leadership of both institutions have put forward an ambitious vision for a new type of institution. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The southeast could qualify for a Technological University within three years but only if “mutual trust” is rebuilt between merging institutions, a report into the troubled university bid has found.

Michael Kelly, former chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), has told Waterford IT and IT Carlow that “given the intensity of stakeholder expectation within the region, there really is no alternative” to a merger between the two institions.

He said “in principle either institute could try to work with a different partner in furthering its own institutional development” but the only combination that directly addressed the needs of the southeast was a joint-bid.

The two institutions had initially planned to merge as part of a bid for Technological University (TU) status but Waterford IT pulled out of talks last October, citing a number of complaints including the length of time the process would take.

WIT has a clear-out of its senior office holders since then and there was a more conciliatory tone today from Professor Willie Donnelly, the institution’s new president.

“Michael Kelly’s positive view that its creation is feasible and that this can be achieved within a reasonable time-frame is welcome. WIT continues to be fully committed to the delivery of a Technological University for the region,” said Prof Donnelly.

However, Mr Kelly points out in his report that much work still needs to be done, both within WIT and the broader community, to get people on board the merger plan.

“Given the current state of play on the project, with a continuing suspension of engagement by WIT, no firm prediction can be made at this stage about the prospects of re-engagement or achievement of a successful outcome.”

He notes that the initial response from WIT to his consultations was “hostile” but this turned to cooperation over time.

The report is expected to go before the governing bodies of both institutions before any talks can resume.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan said she would also consider the recommendations of the report. “The leadership of both institutions have put forward an ambitious vision for a new type of institution and that’s what we need to build on and take forward,” she said.

IT Carlow president Dr Patricia Mulcahy welcomed the “extensive consultation process” and said she looked forward to advancing the bid for a university in the region.

The report sets out a road map for getting the Technological University for the South East (TUSE) bid back on track, recommending the establishment of a project steering group involving management from both institutions and a regional stakeholders forum.

Mr Kelly expresses the view “that it is likely the consortium would meet the quantitative designation criteria within a period of three years”.

However, he said, given the limitations of the process – including WIT’s refusal to engage in round-table discussions – it was not possible to produce a validated set of aggregate data addressing TU Metrics.

Given the history of the project “a degree of patience and a willingness to back the process financially and otherwise will be called for”, he says.

While this won’t be easy “it is achievable. The key will be to keep the focus on the creation of an entirely new institution, to create some early opportunities for cross-campus collaborations and, as soon as possible, to launch a broadly-inclusive cross-campus engagement process on the design of every facet of the new institution”.

He notes: “A striking feature of the landscape in the southeast is the extent of erosion of trust between the two institutes.

“ For that reason, any substantive re-engagement could only follow a preliminary engagement process which would involve chairs and presidents in the first instance.”

The report highlights the economic and educational rationale for a university in the southeast, a region which includes for the purposes of the study the counties of Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford and part of Tipperary.

The region has a high rate of early school leaving which is considerably higher than the national average (13 per cent in Q4 2013 compared to a national average of 8 per cent).

The southeast also has the highest proportion of persons who finish their full-time education at 15 to 17 years of age (at 25. 6 per cent in 2011, compared to 21.9 per cent nationally).

Mr Kelly cited a number of obstacles, including “a widely-held view in WIT that they are already ‘at university level’” and a belief “ that previous commitments... had not been honoured”.

Mr Kelly also identified a difference of opinion between external stakeholders depending on where they were located in the southeast.

“ In Waterford, there is a widely-felt strong sense of entitlement to a university in the city, which it was argued would also serve the needs of the wider region.

“It is based on arguments about equal treatment with other comparable cities, impact on economic and social development, need to compensate for re-location elsewhere of other administrative functions and offices, the business case already made by WIT and overall, an ambition that has deep roots culturally and over a long time span.

“Stakeholders from other parts of the region are quite clear that a Waterford-only solution would not meet their needs or expectations and that they wish to see a more distributed institution with direct links to all parts of the region.”

On the flip side, both institutions already had many shared strengths, including a strong vocational orientation, work placement focus and broad provision of education from basic diplomas to PhDs.

“The main conclusion drawn is that there is very significant convergence of thinking and approach by both Institutes to many aspects of the design of TUSE.”

“The report reflects the limitations of the process undertaken. Given the position taken by WIT, it did not prove possible to have any round-table engagement involving both Institutes as part of this process. Neither has it been possible to produce a validated set of aggregate data addressing TU Metrics, combined across both institutes.”