Plans for university are facing 'significant challenges'
PLANS for a technological university (TU) in Munster face "a very significant challenge", higher education chiefs have warned.
Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and the Institute of Technology Tralee (IT Tralee) are working towards a merger, with a view to becoming one of the new-style technological universities.
But while they have been cleared to continue their journey towards TU status, Higher Education Authority (HEA) chairman John Hennessy has relayed concerns to Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan.
The Irish Independent has seen a confidential letter that Mr Hennessy sent to Ms O'Sullivan last month, following an evaluation of the Cork-Tralee submission by an independent panel.
Mr Hennessy notes that the independent panel was of the opinion that plans submitted by both the Munster consortium, and another in Dublin, were likely to meet the criteria for designation as a technological university or TU, subject to various recommendations.
However, his letter cites phrases such as "lack of vision", "aspirational nature" and "governance weakness" used by the panel - pointing to "significant shortcomings" in relation to some aspects of the Cork-Tralee proposal.
The December 5 letter was sent following a HEA board meeting where the panel's reports were discussed, and which cleared the next stage in the TU process.
The letter states that the board took particular note of the panel's recommendations and observations relating to the Munster consortium.
Mr Hennessy told the minister: "The unease of the panel about the lack of vision, about the aspirational nature of the plan and about its governance weakness" was a cause of concern.
"They point to significant shortcomings in the plan that requires early, and much focussed, attention by the consortium," he wrote.
HEA chief executive Tom Boland has also written to Cork IT president Dr Brendan Murphy and IT Tralee president Dr Oliver Murphy, advising them of the "very significant challenge" they face.
Groups seeking TU status have to satisfy certain criteria, or at least have the capacity to do so within a certain timeframe, including the number of staff who hold PhDs and a sustained level of research activity.
Among the concerns raised by the panel in relation to Cork-Tralee were projections for student numbers; how well it would distinguish itself from other colleges; and whether becoming a university would affect the colleges' relationship with industry.
A small number of technological universities, formed through a merger of existing institutes of technology, were recommended following a review of Ireland's future higher education needs.
There are a number of stages on the road to applying for, and being designated as, a TU.
The Cork-Tralee and Dublin consortia are the only two to have embarked on the process so far.
Moves towards a merger of the institutes of technology in Waterford and Carlow, with a view to creating a technological university of the South East, were derailed some months ago when Waterford pulled out of talks.
The Dublin-based alliance, involving Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown and Institute of Technology Tallaght, is the front-runner.
Dublin is likely to have a technological university - the fifth university in the greater Dublin area - ahead of any other part of the country.