Thursday 23 November 2017

Do we really need four more Irish universities?

Institutes of technology may soon be upgraded. But is it just pointless rebranding? Kim Bielenberg reports

Ireland could soon have four more universities if plans by Institutes of Technology get the go-ahead.

The political battle is now up and running among the colleges to get the badge 'technological university''.

All the Institutes of Technology (ITs) except IADT in Dun Laoghaire have come together in clusters and are seeking the new title.

From Letterkenny down to Tralee, there are hopes for university status and the economic benefits that this could bring.

Supporters of these revamped third-level colleges say that they will improve the quality of technological education and hope to attract international students.

On the other hand, opponents believe that the change would be little more than a rebranding exercise that would lead to "dumbed-down degrees''.

There are fears that they would damage the reputation of existing Irish universities that are already underfunded.

Criteria for the setting up of new technological universities are likely to be published any day now.

The south-east will probably be the first region to get a new a multi-campus technological university, because there is a commitment to it in the Programme for Government.

With two cabinet ministers, Phil Hogan and Brendan Howlin, the region certainly has political clout.

For over half a century there has been a campaign to get a university for Waterford. A 2005 Goodbody report revealed that a university could generate up to €96m annually for the region.

The raised expectations for a university of the south-east quickly led five ITs in the BMW region (Border, midlands, west) to stake their claim as well.

The five ITs -- from Athlone, Galway-Mayo, Dundalk, Letterkenny and Sligo -- want to create the biggest university in the State with 27,000 students.

Athlone Institute of Technology president Ciarán Ó Catháin said the decision about university status should not be political.

"This should be an education decision, according to stringent criteria. It shouldn't be given to one region, because there are two heavy hitters in the cabinet.''

Latest into the ring is Munster Technological University -- a proposed merger of ITs in Cork, Limerick and Tralee.

The press release for this proposal seems to suggest that the region's rugby success can be repeated in academia: "Munster is synonymous with excellence and success, nationally and internationally.''

ITs in the capital are also seeking the creation of a fifth university for the Dublin region. Could this be a University of Leinster?

Any town or city would be delighted to have a university or two, but will they measure up in terms of academic achievement and research?

Tralee lecturer Martin O'Grady, of the Network for Irish Educational Standards, said: "Once one group of Institutes of Technology becomes a university, they will all go through the gate.

"They may save money by amalgamating services, but it is of dubious academic value,'' said O'Grady, a lecturer in psychology at the Institute of Technogy, Tralee. "No amount of renaming can alter the fact that standards are not always high. We want to avoid giving out dumbed-down degrees.

'In Britain, polytechnics were all renamed universities and in some cases the standards were appallingly low.

"The Institutes of Technology should concentrate on raising standards, rather than turning themselves into universities,'' said O'Grady.

While the merger of Carlow and Waterford ITs now looks like a certainty, there is some disappointment in the region that Waterford is not likely to get its own fully-fledged university, separate from Carlow IT.

Professor Ed Walsh, former president of the University of Limerick, is among those who supports the idea of Waterford being a stand-alone university.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, former president of Dublin City University, said: "I am not opposed to a change of status for Waterford IT. I am much less persuaded that adding Carlow to the mix is a good idea, as the two are quite different.''

Professor von Prondzynski said any new university should fulfil certain criteria.

"They should largely provide honours and postgraduate programmes, have active research programmes, and have staff who are qualified up to PhD level.''

Professor von Prondzynski added: "Whatever reasons are used to establish universities must be related to their quality, standard and performance. The perceived need of the region for a university is not a good reason. It is irrelevant to the argument.''

Opponents of the new technological universities have argued that many staff in ITs would be under-qualified to teach in a university.

Dr Kevin Denny, lecturer in economics at UCD, said: "The existing universities may be accused of pulling up the drawbridge, but the lack of research activities in some of these institutes of technology is a clincher. Research is a vital part of a university's role.''

According to the Irish University Association, the average number of PhD students in ITs was only 30 per college, compared with over 1,000 in universities.

According Prof Ó Catháin of Athlone IT, the setting up of any new technological university is likely to take three to five years.

When the Government finally makes its decision on which ITs get the university gong it is likely to be guided by cost.

"There will be some extra costs initially, but in the long term there may be some savings,'' said Prof Ó Catháin. "The institutes will be able to bring together some back office functions, such as payroll.''

Some of the big changes in the merged ITs will be at senior management level. If the new BMW university gets off the ground, there will be no need for five presidents and five financial controllers.

Dr Denny is concerned that the newly merged colleges could divert funds away from existing universities.

"Universities are already terribly under-funded. We should concentrate on improving them, rather than opening new universities,'' he said.

Irish Independent

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