Waterford IT needs to look beyond redesignation


TEACHING MATTERS:Regardless, the case for a university in the southeastis also open to question - there is a strong case to be made that the institutes can already claim equal status to universities.

ITs, for instance, led the way in establishing Campus Incubation Centres - facilities for IT staff and students undertaking commercialising research and innovation. These centres were designed to provide linkages and networks to the business community in the hinterland of the ITs and ensure direct contact between those involved in economic development activity at regional level with the research and teaching resources of the institutes. Over the past decade, they have become a standard feature of almost every higher education campus in Ireland.

Equally, the institutes have played a critical role in meeting the skills needs of employers and start-up industries in their regions since their establishment in the 1970s. Industrial location decisions are heavily influenced by the availability of such expertise. What is not obvious, however, is that these decision-makers show a preference for a university over an IT. They are far more likely to be influenced by the quality of teaching and research, and by the skills and adaptability of the graduates than by the institution's particular designation.

Finally, with regard to widening access to higher education, the institutes generally out-perform the universities and by a significant margin. Each institute typically attracts more than 50% of school-leavers from adjacent counties, and of this number, those from less advantaged backgrounds will have a representation of at least 2:1 over their university counterparts.

Waterford's aspirations for university status also leave it open to the suggestion - recently articulated by Danny O'Hare on these pages - that it is somehow devaluing its current status. This would become more acute should it fail in its ambitions to achieve redesignation.

None of this, however, should be construed as an argument against the legitimate ambitions of the Institutes of Technology to develop to their maximum potential as centres of excellence in higher education, both in teaching and research. In its proposals to de-limit the research activities of the institutes, the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland (2004) failed to appreciate the inseparability of these two processes in higher education.

Equally pious adjurations in favour of the university/institute divide ring somewhat hollow when viewed from an IT perspective. This divide has largely disappeared over the years as the institutes widened the range of their programmes and increasingly moved to degree-level provision, while the universities expanded into course areas traditionally the preserve of the institutes. Apprenticeship training, still an important aspect of the institutes' programmes, is now essentially the only remnant of the divide.

So the institutes are now competing largely on the same playing field as the universities, but are significantly under-resourced by comparison. This is despite the fact that the need for resources is likely to be greater in the institutes considering the high proportion of non-traditional students, many of whom have overcome formidable barriers in accessing higher education in the first instance.

Furthermore, the universities have been much more successful in competing for the increasing amount of discretionary research funding being allocated to higher education in Ireland. In the first three cycles of PRTLI funding, for instance, the institutes secured just €24 million of a total of €604 million. Much of the applied research work of the institutes has been ineligible for such funding.

It could be argued that issues such as these are more fundamental to the future of the institutes than how they are designated. A first condition of parity of esteem is parity of resourcing.

Against this complex background, therefore, it would be unwise for the Government to treat any individual application for university designation by an institute separately from a sector-wide strategy - there may be merit in the proposal for the redesignation of all of the Institutes of Technology as a National University of Science and Technology. Ireland has had a long and successful experience with a federal university - the National University of Ireland. So an additional university, consisting of 12 or so campuses distributed around the country with a particular focus on science, technology and business, would be certainly feasible. In this way, the understandable and legitimate aspirations of Waterford IT for redesignation could be addressed while not disadvantaging any other institute or creating any further problems down the line.

Tom Collins is Professor of Education at NUI Maynooth