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February 9, 2012

Twenty years after polytechnics were turned into universities, plans for a new Irish institution have reignited debate about university status.

It was reported last month that the Irish minister for education, Ruairi Quinn, is likely to agree to a merger of Waterford Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Carlow to form a new university in the southeast of the country.

The Irish Times said the approval was "inevitable" because it has the support of senior Cabinet figures, despite opposition from serving university presidents. Debate has continued online.

"The panic issuing from the seven heads of the seven universities is palpable," writes scientist Norman Wyse in The Norman Wyse Commentary).

Just as it is supposedly possible to gauge the distance of a storm by counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, "so does the frequency of their 'appeals to reason' reflect the likelihood of university provision in the south east region", he says.

"These 'appeals to reason' are interesting in that the arguments contained within them tend to be minimally rational and generally of an emotive or rabble-rousing character," he writes.

Referring to the opposition set out in an Irish Times article, he says: "This is mainly [about] cost...The assumption is that creating a university in the south east would cost money (when it will replace two [Institutes of Technology]), and the red-herring is the suggestion that an upgrade will impact the funding of the university sector in a meaningful way."

In fact, he contends, the effect on existing universities would be minimal, while the assertion in the Irish Times article that "there are indications that the [Institute of Technology] sector is relatively better funded than the universities" is "bemusing".

"In their rush to land blows, they (the university presidents) have contradicted themselves," he writes. "If IoTs are costing more than universities, then we should expect that one university should cost less (at least per student head) than the two IoTs it replaces, therefore upgrading WIT and ITC would make cost sense."

Accusing the presidents of being "cartelist", he adds: "They are fighting a political battle for parochial goals. If they are concerned about costs, I would be happy to point out universities which could be usefully merged in regions where there is an over provision."

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University and former president of Dublin City University, also touches on the topic in his University Blog, arguing that the merger could be a success if properly managed.

"A quarter century ago neither the university for which I now work, nor the one for which I worked until last spring, had university status. And yet both have thrived. So should we look positively at other proposals for university status?" he asks.

Citing the upgrading of BPP University College, Professor von Prondzynski mulls over what should determine a change of status.

He concludes that "the criteria should be based solely on the capacity of the institution to do what universities do, to a high standard; questions about the need for a university in a particular region, or the importance of private competition, shouldn't enter into it at all."

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