In its proposed changes for the future of the third-level sector, it is apparent that the Higher Education Authority (HEA) does not fully appreciate the role of institutes of technology (IoTs).
About 40pc of third-level students in Ireland attend an IoT. Enrolments increased by 48pc between 2006 and 2010, compared with an increase of 14pc in universities.
The distinct offering of IoTs is characterised by their regional locations and the applied employment-focused nature of their courses. Crucially, IoTs provide regional or local access to third-level for students who do not have the financial resources or ability to relocate.
IoTs promote access to higher education for under-represented groups of students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, students completing apprenticeship courses and mature students.
The HEA itself suggests that "when choosing full-time study, mature students in recent years have favoured the IoTs, possibly due to the range of courses offered and alignment with improving work prospects and proximity to home, keeping the IoTs ahead of the universities with regards to proportions of mature entrants".
The HEA also acknowledges that during the downturn, IoTs are "capitalising on recruiting those unemployed in a region".
The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) is concerned that the HEA proposals are driven by saving costs and not by educational or student need. Where there are valid educational reasons for change, the IoT sector and TUI members will not be found wanting. However, the HEA must show that merging IoTs that are up to 80 miles apart will not damage access to regional higher education.
Students and communities, as well as institutes themselves, need to know if existing courses will be lost under these plans.
Rationalisation must not result in students being denied the right to pursue existing programmes in their local region. The close links that each institute has forged with local industry and business, vital to job prospects, must also be protected. The HEA proposes institutes of "more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students".
However, a distinct advantage of IoTs is their smaller size, resulting in greater staff-student interaction.
Before proposing an ill-thought through overhaul, the HEA should address existing problems. These include increases in student numbers, but decreasing staffing levels and a funding model that dis-incentivises IoTs from providing Level 6 and 7 courses.
In addition, the employment control framework is preventing IoTs from developing new courses that could equip students with necessary skills for the jobs market.
Over the past 40 years, IoTs have empowered communities and have created sustainable employment in local economies. However, there is now a real concern that the HEA proposals risk undermining this distinct mission. Before any changes are finalised, it is imperative that there is meaningful engagement to ensure that this vital educational option is protected.
Annette Dolan, Deputy General Secretary, TUI