In My Opinion: New kind of technology university will address the needs of society
It is the demand for higher education that is of the highest quality which is providing the impetus for reform at third level.
A key conclusion of the National Strategy for Higher Education (Hunt Report) was that, notwithstanding many strengths, Ireland was not best served by a system of stand-alone universities, institutes and other colleges with poor, if any, linkages between them.
That is the space now to be filled by the process started this week by the publication by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) of Towards a Future Landscape for Higher Education on regional clusters and technological universities.
In terms of demand, further expansion is essential if we are to support access by those who wish to benefit from higher education, as well as providing the skills needed in the economy.
There is an urgent need to meet a wide range of skills from people, many of whom have had no previous higher-education experience and many of whom will wish to access education on a part-time basis.
To meet these demands, we require several institutional types with differentiated missions, providing a range of all the academic disciplines needed by individuals, society and the labour market.
In this system, the potential for a technological university is created and has attracted special attention.
It is important to emphasise that this is not a university in the traditional sense, but a new kind of university.
In considering Ireland's future economic development and the contribution of higher education, there is a particular need to ensure that it is supported and fostered by actively technology and enterprise-oriented university-level institutions.
While such an entity could be formed from existing universities, and some universities already have strengths in these areas, a university designated with this very specific mission provides the opportunity to bring this mission into the heart of the university system.
There is also a need to provide a developmental pathway for those institutes of technology that have established themselves as being significantly more advanced than others in terms of the quality, breadth and depth of their activity.
By providing the technological university pathway, this trend towards higher levels of performance in those institutes is further incentivised.
The HEA has now published detailed criteria and a process for designation as a technological university.
The HEA will, by the end of this year, advise the Minister for Education and Skills on a detailed structure for the higher education system. The student will be the key focus of the system and, while respecting the autonomy of universities and colleges, accountability for public funding and responsiveness to social and economic needs will be important objectives.
Tom Boland is chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA)