Ireland will have seen five new universities established between the start of 2019 and the end of 2022. But in a relatively small country that already had eight universities*, do we really need 13 in total?
The new “technological universities” (TUs) have seen seven existing institutes of technology (IoTs) merge into larger organisations, with four more IoTs and one college - St Angela’s in Sligo - due to merge in 2022.
Supporters say that the amalgamated IoTs are stronger together: able to offer more programmes, allowing better collaboration between academics and, crucially, able to better build and consolidate links with industry. They’ll also be more easily understood by international students who may have had no idea of what an “institute of technology” was.
Martin Marjoram, president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, is on leave from his position as a TU Dublin lecturer. He says that the TUI's initial fears about TUs have not been realised because the union was listened to and changes were made.
"TUI members now want to be in the process and, despite some industrial relations problems and concerns about the implementation of memorandums of understanding – particularly in Munster – the direction of travel is clear."
Others, including Neil McDonnell, chief executive of Irish Small and Medium Enterprises (ISME) – are concerned that the new TUs may drift away from the original mission of the IoTs: to provide broad, regional and vocationally-based accessible education with strong industry links.
Meanwhile, some universities are concerned that the TUs might dilute the amount of research funding available.
Tom Boland, former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (now a partner at BH Associates), was a key architect of the TU process and helped two consortiums – MTU and the as-yet-unnamed university in the southeast - with their applications. He says that, while it is early days yet, TUs are enabling a wider and better range of choices for students, especially those in more remote areas.
Professor Vincent Cunnane is president of the newest TU, Technological University of the Shannon Midlands-Midwest (TUS), which formed from the merger of Limerick IT and Athlone IT.
By his own admission, he was on the fence about the concept of TUs, back when he was president of LIT and exploring deeper connections with UL and Mary Immaculate College of Education. Experience has changed Cunnane’s view, though he remains forthright about the possible dangers.
I think we differ from traditional universities in that we have a long ladder of opportunity from apprentices to degrees and PhDs, a broad subject base and a variety of delivery modes
“We have seen positive results through the TU Transformation Fund: doubling our number of postgrads, broadening and deepening our research and internationalisation, and we will see more growth in the coming years.”
In developing strategic plans, Cunnane, like Professor Maggie Cusack, president of MTU, Cunnane says that there needs to be wide consultation with stakeholders including staff, students and industry.
“I think we differ from traditional universities in that we have a long ladder of opportunity from apprentices to degrees and PhDs, a broad subject base and a variety of delivery modes, including providing opportunities for reskilling and upskilling,” Cusack says. “A key difference is the very close links [TUS] has with companies and industry.”
Professor David Fitzpatrick, president of TU Dublin – which formed in January 2019 – says the changes are still bedding down, but that they have already been able to offer new programmes, form a faculty of digital and data, and develop short courses such as a new five-credit programme in inclusive entrepreneurship.
Speaking with TU Dublin's registrar and deputy president Dr Mary Meaney, Fitzpatrick says that early concerns that the Tallaght and Blanchardstown campuses would be neglected have not come true: instead, they are being further developed.
We won't be teaching philosophy – not that there is anything wrong with it – but we are about work-based learning and ensuring our graduates are ready for work
"We've collaborated across schools and campuses and strengthened the industry links of our founding institutions" they say. "We've also increased our student numbers and developed and delivered bespoke programmes with companies like Amazon, aimed at upskilling workers."
The mission of traditional universities has always been about more than preparing graduates for the workplace: they also contribute to creating well-rounded citizens and, through research, make a contribution to big social and scientific conversations.
Boland says it is crucial that TUs don’t try to replicate traditional universities, while Cusack says that TUs should be very different.
“We won’t be teaching philosophy – not that there is anything wrong with it – but we are about work-based learning and ensuring our graduates are ready for work,” says Cusack.
TU Dublin, controversially, has joined the Irish Universities Association, raising some concerns – particularly among TUI members who teach there – that it may drift from its original mission.
“We are not abandoning our mission,” says Fitzpatrick. “We have a legislative imperative to double our research output in our first ten years. We are also required to deliver level six to level ten courses. Being in the IUA gives us a pivotal role in shaping higher education.”
But Cunnane, perhaps surprisingly, shares the concerns of ISME’s chief executive. “We will not join the IUA, now or in the future. This is a distinctive sector and needs a distinctive voice.
"My greatest fear is that, in 10 or 20 years time, we will wake up and find we have 12 traditional universities [RCSI being somewhat different], rather than seven traditional universities and five technological universities. This is the greatest threat at policy level and politicians must ensure it does not happen; if it does, technological universities – which can have their own huge impact – will have been an abject failure."
Uncertain future: Staff fear Dundalk IT (DkIT) will be left behind
At Dundalk IT, there’s no obvious route to become a technological university - and there’s no shortage of annoyance among its staff about it.
“DkIT is now well behind the curve, with no easy path to university designation,” says one lecturer at the college.
DkIT had 'unrealisable university ambitions' and has left itself at a disadvantage with the TU process so far advanced
Early discussions between LIT and Dundalk IT did not pan out, and today Cunnane, president of TUS, says that "DkIT [joining TUS] is not on my trajectory at all ... geography has to come into the equation: its sphere of influence is the Greater Dublin area but it also sits on the richest infrastructure in the country, between Dublin and Belfast. "
In a statement, DkIT says that it has met two of the three metrics for TU designations and is in the position to seek a partner, while Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has indicated they are being supported by his department and the HEA.
But who will have them?
“TU status for DkIT is outside the institute’s control as an existing TU has to be willing to accept DkIT into its consortium,” says the lecturer. “The names ‘Technological University of the Shannon’ and ‘Atlantic Technological University don’t send out welcoming signals.”
TUI president Martin Marjoram says DkIT had “unrealisable university ambitions” and has left itself at a disadvantage with the TU process so far advanced.
Seasoned observers have suggested that DkIT may be more likely to link up with DCU, although this would go against a long-standing governmental policy that keeps universities and IoTs separate.
All this may ultimately leave IADT in Dún Laoghaire as the only stand-alone IoT, although with its unique mandate to focus on creative and cultural industries, it is in a better position than DkIT.
A spokesperson indicated that it will remain “actively engaged with peer institutions, TUs and other HEIs on all current and future strategic opportunities.”