Further fears expressed as new book on RTCs hits the shelves
“On 19 January 1997, the Department of Education issued a press release announcing that the Regional Technical College, Waterford was to be retitled Waterford Institute of Technology; the details of the announcement were carried in the Irish Times on 21 January. (Joe) McGarry recalls hearing the announcement on the radio: ‘I was sitting at the counter at home and I nearly fell off the stool.’ McGarry knew the seismic effect the announcement would have within the council (of Regional Technical College Directors.”
– From ‘No Artificial Limits: Ireland’s Regional Technical Colleges’ by Richard Thorn
A new book tracing the development and evolution of Ireland’s Regional Technical Colleges, skilfully written by Sligo IT president emeritus Richard Thorn, has been published at an opportune time in the history of higher education in Ireland.
And given the decades-old campaign for a university in the South East, with its primary campus in Waterford, it stands to reason that local readers’ eyes will be drawn to those pages with the deal with Waterford RTC’s upgrade to WIT and the wave of RTC retitling across the country a year later.
Fears of a ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario facing WIT with respect to its potential upgrading to Technological University (TU) status have been voiced in both political and academic circles of late. It’s even prompted former Mayor and ex-WIT Governing Body member Mary Roche to suggest Waterford might be better served by retaining its ‘IoT’ status.
“A Technological University, as set out in the TU Bill currently being debated in the Oireachtas, would leave us worse off than we were in the RTC days,” claimed WIT academic, Dr Ray Griffin. Speaking to this newspaper in an independent capacity, Dr Griffin explained his reasoning. “The original report which defined an RTC, back in the 1960s, said that there should be no barrier in terms of how they develop. It’s a beautiful document and was incredibly aspirational. It said we’re setting you these new colleges and there should be no impediment to their development, basically that they should be able to grow, follow and achieve their own academic maturity. In contrast, the Technological University Bill that’s emerged has very specific rules about what the new institution would be, and in the future, who knows, it could well be ruled that WIT, or whatever it will be known as in due course, cannot do something because it’s not prescribed by the (TU) Act.
The only line in relation to the ethos of any TU is that it should be entrepreneurial. Now what that means, as far as I’m concerned is that it should be only doing things that are making money. So should we be doing Social Care, should we be doing Humanities in which we learn about complicated French philosophers and so on? It could well be argued down the line, well, neither of those are entrepreneurial, right? Also, what’s in the TU Bill would mean much tighter political control for any re-designated institute. And it’s clear to me that WIT grew against the wishes of successive governments. We’ve had to fight for everything. We fought to give degrees, we fought to give PhDs – it’s 25 years since we gave out our first PhD here – and we fought for and earned everything here. And here’s the heart-breaking bit for me: those colleges that didn’t fight are now having things handed it to them. As Paudie Coffey said in the Seanad a few weeks back, we’ve got 148 PhD students: that is a decade-long commitment for each lecturer in WIT, as a supervisor. They had to go and do their own PhD, which is four to five years, and then had to go and get research money to fund recruiting a PhD, and then there’s the four years for the student’s PhD.
That’s an unbelievable body of work, yet all the time we’ve been doing that here, the Government has basically been saying that this isn’t the business of an IoT, but it is the business of this community. We need a PhD labour market.”
Recalling the 1997 upgrade from RTC to IoT status, Dr Griffin said it was recognition that “WIT had earned the right to progress”. Interestingly, Richard Thorn’s new book carries an admission from then education minister Niamh Bhreathnach (Lab) that awarding Waterford an elevated status would create problems. “Quite clearly,” Thorn writes, “singling out Waterford for special treatment was not going to be readily accepted by the colleges not so favoured. If Cork (RTC) then got retitled, why not Galway, or Athlone or Dundalk or…?”
And the rest is academic history, as Dr Griffin added: “There was a change of government, Micheál Martin came into the Department of Education, the other RTCs were all swiftly upgraded and we found ourselves back in the pack again.
“The region needs a university. It doesn’t need the name. The Government is letting itself off the hook in not funding a university by reducing the standards required to become a TU, which Grace O’Sullivan also mentioned during that Seanad debate.”