January 13th, 1989


FROM THE ARCHIVES:The creation of the first new universities since the founding of the State was announced in 1989 with the upgrading of the National Institutes of Higher Education in Limerick and Dublin. Education Correspondent Christina Murphy explained the background. – JOE JOYCE

THERE IS probably no more controversial figure in Irish higher education than Dr Edward Walsh – know to one and all as Ed – president of the NIHE Limerick and soon to become president of the new University of Limerick. And when the news broke this week that the NIHEL was to become a university, the reaction within higher education circles was more “By God, Ed Walsh has done it at last”, than one of assessing the educational implications.

Ed Walsh arouses passionate reaction in those in third-level education. You either love him or hate him – no one is neutral about him or his NIHE – and they do see it as “his” NIHE. Though effectively the same in academic structure and operation, the NIHE Dublin and its head, Dr Danny O’Hare, enjoy a much more restrained reputation and rarely raises any university hackles.

Walsh returned from the US in 1970 to take on the challenge of setting up a new type of institution in Limerick. He was bright and brash, one of the new generation of achieving technologists, and almost immediately he got up the noses of the traditional university academics.

Nobody knew exactly what an NIHE was: the people of Limerick felt cheated that they had not got the university they wanted, the academics in the universities felt threatened by this new, unknown quantity.

When the [Fine Gael-Labour] Coalition Government put the NIHEL under the umbrella of the National University of Ireland with UCC vetting the NIHEL degree programmes, open hostilities erupted. The university lecturers were not satisfied with the academic quality of some of the courses, and even declared some below degree standard.

Fianna Fáil came to power, John Wilson became Minister for Education and he resolved the dispute by taking Walsh and the NIHEL out from under the universities, giving them effective operational autonomy, but making the National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA) responsible for vetting their courses and awarding their degrees. Walsh was happy and the NIHEL flourished. Students – always the best judges of which courses are up to “standard” and which are not – flocked to Limerick, and employers queued up at the Plassey campus gate to give them jobs.

The universities looked on in awe and in envy. Walsh’s boys – and girls – trooped around the country to academic conferences proudly wearing big NIHEL labels in their lapels to the horror of the university academics. When the NIHEL was featured over and over again in the media, the universities accused Walsh of hiring PR specialists to promote his campus. He didn’t need to, he did it far better himself.