Waterford university campaign goes on


An independent report on the application by Waterford Institute of Technology for university status sees merit in its case, but it also warns of the possible dangers of changing its designation.

Redmond O'Donoghue, the chairman of the institute's governing described the report as a "ringing endorsement" of the case made for university status.

But Minister for Education Mary Hanafin was more cautious. She said the institute's demand must be considered in the wider context of overall higher education policy.

A Government decision on the recommendations of the report by British consultant Dr Jim Port is expected in the coming weeks. The Government could either trigger a formal review of the institute's demand under the Universities Act or it could ask a review group to examine the application with a view to wider higher education policy.

In a key section, the report concludes: "Simply on the merits of its application, we would respect and support WIT's view that it has many of the features of a university, and, arguably, should be considered as a candidate for university status. We also have to respect and support the department's view that its current policy is against 'any further transfers into the university sector'."

Ms Hanafin and other senior education figures are sceptical of Waterford's case, fearing the potential damage to the other 13 institutes of technology. The Government also wants to maintain the traditional jobs and technology focus of the institute sector.

But the successful campaign run by the Waterford institute and the strong political lobby led by Minister for Social and Family Affairs Martin Cullen, a TD for Waterford, has made the Government nervous about a quick decision on the issue.

In his report, Dr Port says the institute's application rests on three main claims: that it has demonstrated its performance at university level; that the region needs a university to counter its poor economic performance; and that it cannot provide the support and leadership needed to facilitate this within the constraints of operating as an institute of technology.

The report concludes: "We see some justification in each of these claims, although there could be counter arguments" to each that would need to be investigated.

The report warns that the Government could be faced with several "me-too" applications by other institutes if the review process is triggered and the Waterford institute is given university status. In these circumstances, it cautions, the mission of the entire institute of technology sector faces "the risk of dilution".

But Dr Port also acknowledges how the Waterford institute has "an academic maturity and an activity profile" similar to universities in Ireland and other western countries. He acknowledges the "significant" economic, social and cultural benefits of a university in the southeast region. He also hints that Waterford could become a new-style university, with a much great technology focus than the other seven universities.

Dr Port says the findings of the landmark 2004 OECD report on the third-level sector are very relevant in considering the Waterford institute's application.

It points out: "The OECD endorsed the maintenance of the differentiation of mission between the university and the institute of technology sectors, and recommended that for the foreseeable future there be no further institutional transfers into the university sector."