Technological universities can transform access to education and research

Opinion: Ireland’s newest technological university comes into being on January 1st

The Munster Technological University (MTU) - formed from the merger of CIT and IT Tralee - will be inaugurated on January 1st 2021, exactly two years on from the establishment of TU Dublin.

The Munster Technological University (MTU) - formed from the merger of CIT and IT Tralee - will be inaugurated on January 1st 2021, exactly two years on from the establishment of TU Dublin.

 

The Munster Technological University (MTU) will be inaugurated on January 1st 2021, exactly two years on from the establishment of TU Dublin.

Currently, three other consortia of Institutes of Technology are preparing their submissions for TU designation. A structure is now in place and a momentum has built up with the potential to transform Irish higher education.

The carefully drafted Technological Universities Act (2018), complemented by the template laid down in the Technological Universities Research Network (Turn) report of 2019 paves the way for a sea change in access to higher education, professional training, focused research and community/enterprise engagement.

Engagement

To achieve this change that essential dynamic relationship between teaching, research, and engagement must be continually shaped and energised by all partners in this endeavour. A sharing of responsibility will result in a sharing of the undoubted benefits that will flow from this partnership and, ultimately, “ownership” of TUs.

The TU Act affords appropriate and due recognition to the three central functions of a university: teaching, research, and engagement. By doing so it can be seen to address the oft unspoken criticism of universities where staff are “hired to teach and promoted on research output.”

In many jurisdictions, the many calls on an academic’s time and effort are specifically called out in terms of assessing the lecturer/professor performance in the respective “weighted” categories of teaching, research, and extension, to use the US term for university engagement with industry/enterprise and the community.

This flexibility of contract, and hence performance evaluation and reward, allows both the academic and the higher education institution to play to its strengths in terms of delivering to the many stakeholders who both fund and depend on the university output for advancement.

TUs in Ireland offer the opportunity and funding platform to repurpose technological and profession/community-focused education, simultaneously leading and serving community and the economy.

This is in line with the template set out in the far-seeing Turn report of 2019. Turn fashioned a route forward by anchoring the potentials and aspirations of TUs and TU consortia with national strategy, policies, and budget lines.

Innovation

While Turn calls out technology, Stem (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) and applied, focused research in particular, it equally identifies the need for innovation.

The culture of innovation stems from interdisciplinarity, the breaking down of traditional academic and research siloes to address the needs of society, identifying problems which need solutions as well as opportunities to address quality of life issues. This latter aspect is proving a key attraction in encouraging young women to pursue careers in Stem areas, putting technology to use in improving society , as against developing technology for technology’s sake.

This TU “reform” offers the possibility of addressing the growing geographical imbalance in the numbers of Stem graduates. Currently, over half of the world’s Stem graduates come from universities in the east (China, India etc) with only 14 per cent graduating from EU higher education institutions. In an increasingly technology dependent world, the EU needs to up its game in Stem to, at the very least, stay competitive.

Within the EU there are good models to follow in terms of high delivering TUs such as the Netherlands who can serve as benchmarks for Irish TUs. Eindhoven University of Technology, for example, focus on and excel in engineering/science/technology. The city of Eindhoven is now recognised as a global centre of innovation with the TU and regional industry as the key drivers. Wageningen University follow a similar path in food/biosciences/healthy living and are highly ranked globally as an engaged and innovative university.

Challenges

A strong and innovative higher education sector is a key element of a modern society, vital to sustaining and developing community and economy. While State investment in higher education faced challenges in the economic downturn, it has nevertheless been very significant.

It is not unreasonable to measure and focus such investment as a function of evidenced and desired output from higher education. The HEA has encouraged such multi-point self- evaluation in its interactions on higher education institution budget allocations in recent years to good effect.

Change is generally incremental in higher education. Thus, a new four-year degree programme will typically be a minimum of a year in planning and approval processes with graduates accordingly not emerging until a minimum of five years from the initiation of the programme development process.

The development of TUs offers the opportunity for a step-change in this process as it can value and enhance the dynamic link between the TU and regional/national needs in terms of training and education.

The modular and semesterised approach to teaching and assessment in TUs can allow for more responsive course development, with respective regulatory and professional accreditation bodies as contributing partners in this process. Ensuring the vibrancy of the enterprise & community/teaching/ research loop ensures a good return on State investment in TUs.

The TU Act (2018) brings this into clear focus, recognising the importance of both academic qualifications and professional experience in delivering on the TU mission, while also enshrining an essential international dimension for each TU.

TUs are being structured to date on basis of regional proximity. Evolution from technical institutes to RTCs, then IOTs, now clustering to form TUs, each with missions and deliveries developed out of the regions, and for the regions.

This must continue to be nurtured and enhanced funding must be mirrored in enhanced service to respective regions, but always in the context of national strategy and international, specifically EU, opportunities.

Dr Barry O’Connor is president of CIT (Cork Institute of Technology) and retires at the end of this year. Prof Maggie Cusack is to be appointed the president of Munster Technological University (MTU) on January 1st.