Thursday 22 February 2018

How will students and staff cope in third-level's big shake-up?

The number of colleges is to be cut from 39 to 15. Kim Bielenberg reports on the proposed big bang

Its supporters say the planned mergers of Irish third-level colleges will improve quality and bring greater efficiency.

In the biggest shake-up of institutes of technology and universities for decades, the number of colleges may eventually be slashed from 39 to 15.

In some cases, they may jump into each other's arms, but there may also be the odd shotgun marriage.

If this big bang goes to plan, colleges will pool their resources, try to cut down on bureaucracy and duplication of courses.

Instead of separate payroll systems and human resources departments, merged colleges would have just one. Critics, on the other hand, say the constantly changing plans for big new super-colleges are chaotic and inconsistent.

Over the past two years, the sector has been snowed under by reports, plans and recommendations.

There have been reports of institutes of technology clubbing together to form technological universities.

Only a year ago, there were plans for a BMW (Border Midlands West) University stretching from Louth to Letterkenny as well as a Technological University of Munster, but these were jettisoned.

An expensive report by a Dutch academic for the Higher Education Authority proposed a merger of UCD and Trinity, but this proposal is now considered less palatable than horse burgers.

The chopping and changing of plans for mergers could be compared to Lanigan's Ball, with colleges stepping in and then stepping out again.

The latest proposal is to cut the number of publicly funded third-level colleges in Ireland 39 to 24 and eventually to 15.

The plan would include:

• The merger of three institutes of technology in the capital, taking in DIT, Blanchardstown and Tallaght.

• The ITs in Galway, Letterkenny and Sligo would also come together.

• ITs in Carlow and Waterford would merge, and eventually become a technological university.

• ITs would be encouraged to collaborate closely with nearby universities. Teacher-training colleges would also merge with universities.

So how will the merger plans work? If two ITs that are coming together offer similar courses, will one of the courses be scrapped and the lecturers and students told to move to another campus?

The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) is concerned that lecturers and students will have to move to distant towns in "a pile 'em high and teach 'em cheap" policy.

"Increasingly, students will have to travel further to do courses," says IFUT spokesman Mike Jennings.

"They may need extra grants for living away from home, and that could mean greater costs."

Education officials will also be keen to avoid situations similar to the SUSI disaster, where a centralised system was set up for processing grants, but resulted in chronic inefficiency.

These worries are genuine, but the changes may not be as radical as some lecturers fear.

Denis Cummins, chairman of Institutes of Technology Ireland, says: "The merged colleges will probably keep similar courses on separate campuses if there is a high demand.

"If a course is more specialised, on the other hand, it will probably stay on one of the campuses."

The merger of Institutes of Technology in Tipperary and Limerick has already taken place, and the change has not been that drastic for lecturing staff and students.

The new body is spread over four campuses – the main LIT campus near Thomond Park, the art college in Limerick city centre, and Tipperary campuses in Thurles and Clonmel.

The president of LIT, Dr Maria Hinfelaar, argues that the merger is a model for public sector reform.

When the economist Colm McCarthy's An Bord Snip Nua report appeared four years ago, the Tipperary IT faced the possibility of closure.

"The number of students on the Tipperary campuses has increased from 400 to 800, while the number of staff has been reduced from 105 to 90," said Dr Hinfelaar.

Annual costs on the Tipperary campuses have been cut from €10m to €7m, according to the LIT president. LIT has not brought in any major cull of courses, and has retained the vast majority of programmes as they were.

The IT still has business courses spread over three campuses in Limerick, Clonmel and Thurles. The more specialised courses, such as law and taxation, and accounting and finance are based in Limerick, while Thurles and Clonmel each have a general business course.

Niamh Kavanagh, president of the recently merged Limerick Institute of Technology's Students' Union, said: "There were some teething troubles at the start, but on the whole, it has worked out well.

"It is better in the long run. Because of the larger numbers, the student services have improved. They have been able to provide better counselling services."

When the merger took place, the financial, human resources and computer services departments were centralised. Some administrative staff in Tipperary were redeployed.

There are some practical problems associated with having campuses that are up to 80km apart, however.

The merged institute still has separate sports teams, because it would not be practical to have training sessions together.

Some of the merged institutes of technology may become technological universities after they come together. However, in order to be reclassified, they will have to fulfil certain academic requirements – 45pc of staff will have to have doctorates.

The Network for Irish Educational Standards warned that recent proposals from the Higher Education Authority are a mish-mash of structural changes that have little to do with improving quality.

A spokesman for the network, Simon Quinn, said the moves to obtain university classification were all about status and political manoeuvring and had little to with standards.

Irish Independent

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