University or technological university – what’s in a name?

Technological universities are expected to have an emphasis on level six to eight programmes and industry-focused research

University or technological university – what’s in a name? For most people, the establishment of four new “technological universities”, or TUs - formed from mergers of institutes of technology – means little more than a rebrand.

Where are the technological universities?

Instead of going to DIT, IT Tallaght or IT Blanchardstown, students are now going to Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin); they're not attending CIT or Tralee IT, but rather they're a student of Munster Technological University (MTU); AIT and LIT students find themselves attending the (somewhat cumbersomely-named) Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, abbreviated to TUS.

There are now two new additions to the TU parade: Atlantic Technological University, formed in April 2022 from the merger of Galway-Mayo IT, IT Sligo, and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, and South East Technological University, established in May 2022 from a merger of Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow.

Why are there technological universities?

The idea was first mentioned back in recession-ravaged 2009, when An Bord Snip Nua called for institutes of technology to merge as a cost-saving measure.

As the economy slowly but surely improved, however, it became less about saving money and more about making it.

International students – a big source of income for the cash-strapped third-level sector – were willing to pay money to study abroad, although they didn’t know what an “institute of technology” was, putting the IoTs at an immediate competitive disadvantage. But they knew what the “university” in “technological university” meant.

In addition, there was a sense that third levels outside the biggest urban areas of Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick, were being left behind; Waterford, in particular, had long harboured ambitions to be a university; UL's founding president and an influential voice in education, Prof Edward Walsh, says that "the need for a full university, the University of Waterford, in the southeast still remains."

Now, students in and around Carlow, Donegal, Kerry, Roscommon, Sligo, Waterford and Westmeath – who may not have been able to afford to move out of home to attend a university due to the high cost of rent and living, not to mention college fees – can potentially live at home and still get a university education.

"Mergers cost money, especially in the first few years," says Prof Vincent Cunnane, president of TUS. "Our strategy is to grow and expand our student numbers and keep students in the region, educated and trained around our campus, employed by stakeholders in the region, and creating families who live, work and play in the regions near TUS."

Dr Mary Meaney, registrar and deputy president at TU Dublin, says that their establishment has meant one institution with a collective and strategic approach instead of three institutions competing against each other.

Tom Boland, former CEO of the Higher Education Authority and a key figure in the establishment of the TUs, is now a partner at education consultancy BH Associates.

“Kerry was focused on Kerry and Cork on Cork, but now [MTU]can focus on the area rather than their locality,” he says.

It was always intended that similar departments across the different campuses from the old IoTs would develop closer links, but geography remained a factor for, say, a worker in Cork who was looking at an upskilling course in Kerry. Now, of course, technology and the great leaps in online and blended learning brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated those links.

“We’d hope to see a student in, for instance, the outermost part of Donegal now being able to access the collective of all programmes a TU [such as ATU] can offer,” Boland says.

What’s different about a technological university?

There’s a lot more to this than simply changing the stationery and plaques, and students can expect a different kind of educational experience at one of the TUs. IoTs couldn’t just decide to become a technological university or merge with another IoT because they wanted to: they had to achieve strict targets in relation to both their research and teaching quality. From the start of the process, this put them on a well-defined path to being better, stronger and more resilient.

Presidents at the new TUs all point towards their close links with industry. In a previous interview with this journalist for this newspaper, MTU president Prof Maggie Cusack said that they "won't be teaching philosophy" because they are about work-based learning and preparing graduates for the world of work – a statement that drew criticism online and also irked some of her colleagues at the university.

In particular, some of the online commentary said that education should be about more than just getting a job, and that philosophy prepares a graduate for both work and for being an active and contributory member of society.

But Cusack’s statement effectively summed up – in a controversial nutshell – what really differentiates the TUs from the traditional universities. Before they were TUs, they were institutes of technology and, before that, they were regional technical colleges, which, unlike universities, were to be focused on training graduates for specific jobs in specific workplaces.

The TUs have retained this mission – and it’s fundamentally what sets them apart from more traditional universities, which have tended towards – to borrow from philosophical thinking – a more “Humboldtian” model of education, focused on the links between science and humanities and the production of well-informed human beings and citizens over and above a more narrow focus on producing workers and entrepreneurs. Ultimately, students will decide what model of education they want.

These are distinctions that can, and will, sometimes be blurred. UCD, for instance, recently came in for criticism of its links with the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute, with esteemed academic Prof Ben Tonra resigning from a university position over its global engagement strategy which, he said, is "motivated purely by income".

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities have deepened their links with industry – industry placements are a common course component these days – and now actively market themselves as institutions that can help graduates get a good job. But TUs say that entrepreneurship and innovation is more fully embedded in their DNA, with industry collaboration at the core of how they teach students.

Another key difference that the TUs will highlight is how they deliver apprenticeship programmes, which begin at level six on the National Framework of Qualifications, through level seven ordinary degrees, level eight honours degrees, level nine postgrads and level 10 PhDs, whereas most universities offer only programmes from levels eight to 10.

The TUs, on average, offer a wider number of delivery modes, and while the traditional universities have developed their upskilling, reskilling and continuous professional development options in recent years, the TUs still retain an edge here.

Dr Mary Meaney, deputy president and registrar at TU Dublin, says that larger student numbers translate to more opportunities when it comes to clubs and societies, particularly at the elite athlete level.

Indeed, whereas smaller student numbers limited the number of student clubs and societies that could reasonably flourish, the establishment of TUs means more students and therefore more chances to get involved.

What hasn’t changed?

For most students, the day-to-day college experience will be the same, and it might seem like there is indeed little difference between the old IoT and the new TU. They might not immediately notice the regional impact their new TU has, or how different courses or programmes have changed.

Most of all, there’s still a relative distance between, say, TUS’s Athlone and Limerick campuses, or ATU’s Galway and Letterkenny campuses, meaning that all the students involved in a particular club or society can’t simply join up with their friends by taking a short bus ride between campuses. With the exception of TU Dublin, where students can hop on the Luas red line between Tallaght and Grangegorman, most of the various TU campuses remain a place apart.

Technological universities: the key differences for students

University:

  • Tends to be more focused on broad intellectual development
  • Courses generally (but less so in recent years) more focused on societal needs
  • Class sizes larger on average
  • One dominant central campus, with smaller learning centres or affiliated institutions sometimes dotted nearby or elsewhere in Ireland.
  • Fewer pathways and links to further education (PLCs, traineeships, apprenticeships).
  • National remit

Technological university:

  • Tends to be more focused on career and vocational orientation
  • Courses generally more driven by industry and business needs than societal needs
  • Class sizes smaller on average
  • Several campuses in different locations throughout a region of Ireland
  • More pathways and links to further education (PLCs, traineeships, apprenticeships)
  • More regional remit, focused on the social and economic needs of their area

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