TU or not TU: that is the big question

“New legislation due to commence soon will pave the way for the first technological university. The idea is that by merging institutes of technology, we can create larger and more powerful institutes of technology. A DIT-led university will likely be the first to meet the criteria towards the end of 2018. A formal name-change and merger is probably a while off yet, as there will be a lead-in time for prospective students. Do we really need them? Time will tell if they are a good idea – or simply a poor imitation of our existing universities.” – Carl O’Brien, The Irish Times, January 2nd

Dublin Metropolitan University: that was the bright future which lay ahead for Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) back in the late 90s. That’s what students at DIT, including myself and Carl O’Brien, now Education Editor with The Irish Times, were writing about during our cub reporting years.
But here we are, in 2018, and DIT is still DIT, so let’s not pretend that it’s just Waterford and the South East that doesn’t always get what it wants.
The internal bunfight within Irish academia doesn’t generate headlines to quite the same extent as the in-house traumas that appear to dog bodies such as the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána or (when the rest of us pay attention) the Olympic Council of Ireland. But exist – and persist – they most certainly do. And doubts over what a Technological University (TU) will achieve which an Institute of Technology (IoT) cannot already do justly linger.

Happy WIT graduates. Fears that the Institute may be led down the garden path by the TU process cannot be dismissed as tribal paranoia.

Happy WIT graduates. Fears that the Institute may be led down the garden path by the TU process cannot be dismissed as tribal paranoia.

On November 7th last, a Government press release detailing “insertions and amendments” to the 2015 (TU) Bill didn’t shed a great deal of fresh light on an issue which ought to be among the top five regional development goals of any South East-based TD or Senator.
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor said these amendments were the result of a consultative process with the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), IMPACT, the Union of Students in Ireland and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA).

For the record, THEA was established last April and is membered by the country’s 14 Institutes of Technology, of which only four are not involved in the current TU application process.
Stating her hope that the TU Bill would be enacted by the end of this year, the Minister contended: “This will be a very significant and advantageous step for the Higher Education sector and will have major benefits for the sector, students, the community and regional development. It will constitute a step change for the new institutions when established in terms of their critical mass, reach and influence regionally, nationally and internationally.”

The Government may well wax enthusiastically about the TU process in its press releases, but they’ve not been too heavy on pointing out how they’ll set about addressing the findings of the Peter Cassells-chaired Report into the funding of Higher Education. And this was not lost on THEA Chief Executive Dr Joseph Ryan back in April when he stated: “The (IoT) sector has seen a decrease in the state grant of 35 per cent, a drop in core staffing levels of 12 per cent, a virtual halt to capital investment and an increase in student numbers of 30 per cent between 2008 and 2015.”

In an interview with this newspaper last week, City & County Councillor Mary Roche (Ind), a former member of WIT’s Governing Body, admitted to fearing the worst on the TU front given the IoT upgrading fiasco which occurred in the wake of WRTC’s elevation to IoT status, the 21st anniversary of which will presumably be marked later this year.
When Waterford Regional Hospital was rebranded as University Hospital Waterford, a great many commentators feared the change of letter heading would do little to sustain and enhance services at Ardkeen.
Sadly, that has largely proven the case, with one regular UHW patient telling me only last week that the reduction in waiting times at the X-Ray Department represents the singular improvement he has noticed at the hospital in recent years. And we have most certainly had our fill of meaningless title changes in Waterford.
If this Government or its successor advances the TU process without granting any successful applicant funding parity or autonomy on an equal basis to that enjoyed by the existing Universities, there is no point in pursuing with this process without those outcomes being locked-in.

Merging any entities with largely similar remits and inevitable administrative crossovers leaves the word “efficiency” hanging over this process like a hooded reaper’s scythe.
And again, one is forced to pre-emptively ask why the TU process has been sold to WIT as the only academic upgrade game in town?
And why was the initial Waterford/Carlow merger report (2014) prepared by Professor John Taylor of the University of Liverpool withdrawn, in which he stated that a standalone WIT bid could fulfil TU status within 12 to 15 months (2016), compared to five to seven years in Carlow’s case? What heat came upon Professor Taylor, who had no biased skin in the game whatsoever – and who applied it?

As Dr Donie Ormonde put it to me following his resignation as Chair of WIT’s Governing Body in late 2014: “John Taylor was recommended to us from someone within the Higher Education Authority (HEA) – I’m not in a position to say by whom – yet the whole point of his report was to be absolutely impartial in assessing both ITs, and then he felt he had to withdraw it. Why, you have to wonder?”
And you also have to wonder what actually defines a Technological University and what would differentiate it from an Institute of Technology. Because I remain none the wiser on both fronts.

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