Shining a light: institutes of technology – and soon technological universities?
INDUSTRY plays a significant role in the export-led Irish economy. It has transformed at a rapid and dramatic pace over the last 20 years.
Globalisation opened additional markets for exports but it also exposed local industries to competitors from low cost economies eager to increase market share.
Knowledge is, therefore, quickly becoming the critical competitive advantage. Higher education is at the forefront of research and the main contributor of this knowledge, but the structure of higher education must change in line with the demands facing industry.
Our regions have been hit particularly hard by the transformation of industry, and the economic crash; the population finds itself lacking in skills that are in demand, many leave the region to study and do not come back, depriving the region of the critical potential to develop economic activity.
I have seen this happen in the south east despite the many untapped assets for industry. The region has a rich agri-food culture and the best placed port in Ireland for its proximity to both the UK and mainland Europe and its connectivity to the rail and road networks. It offers a quality of life which should attract city-dwellers fed up with traffic and overcrowding, and it plays host to a significant amount of multinationals and SMEs, especially in the pharmaceutical industry.
Institutes of Technology have been a defining factor in a region's capacity to fight to modernise and renew itself.
In doing so, a fresh breed of third level institute is emerging, providing a new type of knowledge interface with industry.
The success of Cork, Dublin and Waterford institutes of technology in the recent Technology Gateways, funded by Enterprise Ireland, is testimony to this new breed. These are the three leading contenders for the new technological university designation.
I can see the huge impact the Waterford IT has had on the local economy.
In the 10 years leading up to 2013, it injected €130m in external research funding into the economy, driving economic activity and innovation.
Waterford IT has a proven track record of engaging with industry bodies and individual companies. Waterford Chamber, local companies and the South Eastern Applied Materials Research Centre (SEAM), one of the local Technology Gateways, initiated a new manufacturing conference series to enhance and support innovation.
A further significant driver has been the use of innovation vouchers, worth €5,000 and available through Enterprise Ireland, to assist a company or companies to explore a business opportunity or problem with a third-level college or research body.
The south east remains a national leader in this scheme, accounting for about 30pc of the national pool. But, more is needed. The institutes of technology must evolve to retain the talent that is currently flowing out of the region.
We need technological universities to enhance industry-academia connectivity, to drive stronger knowledge transfer and to support the development of a vibrant manufacturing base.
I look forward to harnessing the resources these new institutions can deliver for industries such as mine.
Laurent Borla is general manager of Nutripharma Ireland, a pharmaceutical manufacturing subsidiary of the French multinational Laboratoires Arkopharma, which has been exporting traditional herbal medicines and food supplements to Russia, former Soviet Union countries and Asia from Waterford since 1997.