Sunday 26 February 2017

In my opinion: Stop stereotyping tech colleges, Mr Sutherland

Peter Sutherland's extraordinary sideswipe at Institutes of Technology (IoTs) reveals an understanding of this sector of Irish higher education that is woefully ill-informed.

Speaking at the launch of the Undergraduate Awards of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mr Sutherland said he was opposed to the even distribution of resources between top universities and a "Ballygobackwards RTC". Such linguistic mud-slinging is an undisguised insult to the hundreds of thousands of learners who attend and have attended IoTs.

There is nothing backward about the programmes offered by the country's 14 institutes of technology; this is reflected in the fact that in September 2009, more students accepted a college place in IoTs than in universities.

Progression rates from second- to third-level education have increased over the past two decades, with two-thirds of Leaving Certificate students now choosing to go to college. This is attributable to the premium placed by institutes of technology on offering accessible third-level education founded on favourable staff-student ratios, work placements and a progressive ladder system of qualifications.

There is nothing backward about the initiatives undertaken by the institutes to increase the number of mature students accessing third level.

In these economically turbulent times, IoTs are playing a crucial role in upskilling the workforce, a task essential to the restoration of the country's fortunes.

Nor is there anything remotely backward about the IoTs' investment in research and innovation, which has exceeded €273m since 2004.

This is helping Ireland become an innovation island and is a powerful boost to indigenous and multinational companies.

I would like to invite Mr Sutherland to visit Athlone Institute of Technology -- or indeed any other institute campus -- so he can see first-hand the nature of the work undertaken in Ireland's IoTs.

He might be surprised to learn, for example, in Athlone's case that one in 10 of our full-time undergraduate students come from outside Ireland, or that we have collaborative agreements with some of the leading research universities in the world, including GeorgiaTech, Bharati Vidyapeeth University in India and the Institute of Software, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Such partnerships give short shrift to any views of IoTs as parochial or insular. He is correct, however, in stating that Ireland needs "a level of general excellence in education if we are to compete in the modern world". What Mr Sutherland failed to realise is the diversity of learner and employer needs demands a higher education system which recognises the complementary contributions of institutes of technology and universities.

Both need to be adequately funded. Excellence is not a virtue exclusive to rarefied campuses; the achievements of IoT students, graduates and researchers over four decades are testament to that.

Mr Sutherland may have associated institutes of technology with the negative stereotype of Ballygobackwards, but in truth it is his own remark that belongs in the farcical realm of Ballymagash.

Irish Independent

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