Title fight: Ireland's institutes make their nominative case

Universities object as technology colleges align to bid for a status upgrade. Jon Marcus reports

October 25, 2012

Long the poor stepchildren of the nation's higher education system, the Republic of Ireland's institutes of technology are demanding some respect.

After at least 10 years of trying, they may be close to gaining the status of universities - or at least "technological universities". But against the backdrop of Ireland's budget difficulties, their campaign seems only to have intensified the divide between the two traditional branches of Irish public higher education.

The view from the nation's 14 institutes of technology is that Ireland's seven existing universities are standing in the way of their attempts to raise their status, with elitism frequently cited as the cause. University leaders have countered with concerns about affordability.

In the meantime, the process is crawling forward and the institutes - which began as regional technical colleges and are more locally focused than the universities - have apparently solid political support for their bid to have their standing elevated in the same way that the UK's polytechnics became universities in the early 1990s.

"We see ourselves as a different kind of university," said Brian Norton, president of the Dublin Institute of Technology. "The name 'institute of technology' doesn't convey that."

But he added: "If you've got a legal definition of the word 'university' and it gives you cachet, people who already have that are not as keen as you might think sometimes to share it. I suppose there are some basic snobberies."

Dublin, Waterford and Cork's institutes of technology have long sought university status, but past applications for the title were turned down or delayed while various studies and reports about the future of Irish higher education were planned or in progress. Then in January 2011, a government-commissioned review chaired by the economist Colin Hunt issued its long-delayed report on the Irish academy. Its proposed 20-year strategy for the sector included a revival of the idea of giving university title to the institutes of technology.

The Hunt report - formally titled the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 - said there was no case for new universities in Ireland, but suggested that some institutes of technology might be merged, adding: "when, over time, the amalgamated institutes ... demonstrate significant progress against stated performance criteria, some could potentially be re-designated as technological universities".

Opportunity knocks?

As groundbreaking pronouncements go it was hardly earth-moving, but the institutes of technology saw it as grounds for optimism. Politicians backed them up, including two Cabinet members who represent the southeastern region that includes Waterford and Carlow.

The Irish Higher Education Authority duly wrote rules governing the establishment of technological universities and invited applications from February this year. Bids poured in from institutes that teamed up to present the strongest possible candidacies.

However, the HEA, now bogged down in controversy over an international report recommending radical changes including the merger of Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin, has yet to provide a timetable for a decision on the institutes' applications for university status.

In the meantime, submissions have been driven by more than just the desire for prestige. Under the terms of a newly adopted funding formula, the institutes will receive their budget allocations based on enrolment and other measures. Higher degrees (at bachelor's level and above) are worth more than lower-level associate degrees, for example. And institutes of technology presumably would be able to award more of the former if they were transformed into universities.

In addition, increased record-keeping and other administrative requirements would be easier for smaller institutes to manage, they argue, if they were able to merge with larger counterparts with their own incentives to expand.

First came the well-connected Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology, which filed a joint application to merge and become a technological university. The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, the Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology, Sligo also made a combined bid for technological university status.

Five other institutes in the border, middle and west of the country joined forces and did the same: if successful, this alliance would become Ireland's largest higher education institution, with ,000 students. The Dublin Institute of Technology and the institutes in Tallaght and Blanchardstown also jointly applied to become a technological university.

But the leaders of Ireland's existing universities swiftly raised objections over quality and cost.

"It's not a question of elitism at all," said Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the representative body for the country's seven existing universities.

"This issue of parity of esteem ... comes up all the time. We've never said that we have an objection in principle to technological universities or any other form of bona fide university. What we've said at all times is that as long as there is a robust transition process with clear metrics that ensure that any institute awarded the title of university conforms to the characteristics that you would expect of a university, then that's fine."

Moreover, Mr Costello said, universities' concerns were simply practical ones "as to where the resources involved will be found".

The Irish government's programme of austerity cost the higher and further education sectors 5 per cent of their funding in 2009, followed by additional cuts of 9 per cent in 2010, 7 per cent in 2011 and 5 per cent this year. A further 6 per cent cut is expected to be made in the period up to 2015. In all, the nation's total education budget has been reduced by EUR1.1 billion (£1.4 billion) since the start of the global economic crisis.

This has occurred even as the number of students entering higher education in the country has increased by about 6 per cent a year. This has been driven not only by population growth, but also by a concerted effort to recruit more higher-fee-paying non-European Union students as a means of generating revenue, and by the arrival of UK students fleeing tuition fee increases in England.

The number of applicants to Irish universities from England, Wales and Northern Ireland rose by per cent this autumn; meanwhile, the number of Irish students heading in the opposite direction fell by 19 per cent.

Growth brings funding challenges

Over the next 10 years, applications to Irish universities are expected to rise by 30 per cent. The Hunt report cited a need for an additional EUR500 million per year, taking state funding for higher education to EUR1.8 billion by 2020, simply to keep up with the expected growth in enrolment.

"If you are to look at...higher education in Ireland...the challenge is the development of some sort of sustainable system," Mr Costello said. "Structures are subsidiary to that. The priorities are the wrong way around. That's a point we will be making and will continue to press very, very strongly."

The institutes of technology, however, argue that becoming technological universities will make them more efficient, not more costly.

In a paper in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development journal Higher Education Management and Policy, Maria Hinfelaar, president of the Limerick Institute of Technology, says the change would help to address Ireland's rising enrolment and save money by merging smaller institutions with larger ones and streamlining administrative costs.

Fundraising and student recruitment would also be easier, Professor Norton contended, "particularly in international markets, where the peculiarity of the Irish system can confuse. You could argue, in the particular proposal that we have, that operationally you'd be able to save resources."

But Mr Costello argued that the institutes of technology were likely to have to increase their administrative staffing to handle more complex programmes and larger student numbers, in addition to the other expenses involved.

"Research costs money. Labs cost money. These are all things that cost money," he said. "Clearly, if you're developing a new university - and fully fledged universities are more complex organs than the institutes of technology - there will be a cost. Where is the money going to come from? You just come back to the basic question."

Government funding for research conducted by Ireland's higher education institutions has held fairly steady, although there are signs that it, too, may be subject to cuts in the future. And if the institutes of technology become technological universities, they will be competing for the same pot of money.

"It will go where it goes on the basis of the best proposals," said Professor Norton, whose institution already has a robust research programme. "It might create more competitive pressures, but that's not a bad thing either."

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