Technological universities

Some argue that there is a political battle in progress, which those favouring new universities will shortly win. As the Times has recently stated, “The Southeast is set to win its long battle for university status, despite strong opposition from some university presidents and senior figures in the HEA” (‘Quinn to approve technology university in southeast’, Irish Times, 17 January 2012).

However, this view is wrong in every important respect.

What is on offer is not university status but “technological university” status, and the universities will be sure to insist on the difference. Moreover, a process this complex cannot simply be called a “battle” – it is not that lawless, and too many of the important players are on neither side. It is not at all like cage-fighting, and in many ways it is closer to The X Factor. Most important of all, it is not going to result in any victory or defeat for quite a while yet. Whoever loses the current arguments will have plenty of time to recover their position. We are in this for the long haul.

New institutions

It has been made clear by the government that eligibility to become a technological university will in practice only be open to institutions formed by the amalgamation of existing ITs. With this in mind, the following amalgamations were initially contemplated:

  • University of the South-East (“TUSE”) – Waterford IT and IT Carlow.
  • Borders, Midlands and Western (“BMW”) – from Athlone IT, Letterkenny IT, Dundalk IT, Galway-Mayo IT and IT Sligo. Three of these (LyIT, GMIT and ITS) have also promoted a Connaught-Ulster Alliance for themselves alone – the relation with BMW is unclear.
  • A Dublin institution (“DTU”) from Dublin IT, IT Tallaght, and IT Blanchardtown – see website.
  • Munster Technical University (“MTU”) – formed from Cork IT, IT Tralee and Limerick IT.

However, the status of these possible amalgamations is in doubt, especially given that other rival schemes of amalgamation have been publicly discussed, and (with much government encouragement) there are various cross-cutting alliances between third-level institutions. These may also be seen as preludes to amalgamation, or (more realistically) as attempts to stave off amalgamation by displaying a token commitment to co-operation while retaining institutional independence. In December 2012, Limerick IT openly declared that they saw no future in the MTU project, preferring instead to concentrate their collaborative efforts on the Shannon Consortium (through which LIT collaborates with UL, IT Tralee and MIC), though CIT and ITT have since declared that they will progress it anyway. (See ‘LIT withdraw from Munster Technological University idea‘, Limerick Leader 22 December 2012.) GMIT, IT Sligo  and LyIT have publicly taken the position that they are allied, with a long-term objective of becoming a TU. LIT, AIT, DkIT and the IADT currently plan to remain as stand-alone institutions. In May 2013, the government announced that three expressions of interest in the establishment of TUs had been accepted: (1) Waterford IT and IT Carlow, (2) Dublin IT, IT Tallaght, and IT Blanchardtown, and (3) Cork IT and IT Tralee – these will now be progressed for consideration at the next stage. A fourth consortium (Letterkenny IT, Galway-Mayo IT and IT Sligo) will not, as things stand, be progressed. It is not entirely clear how long the remaining procedures will take, but as they will involve not only an exhaustive enquiry into the merits of the applications but also the drafting of new legislation, presumably it will be a number of years before any Technological Universities emerge.

Definition

“Internationally, a technological university is a higher education institution that operates at the highest academic level in an environment that is specifically focused on technology and its application.” (Hunt Report, 103)

In the Irish context, an additional element must be added: TUs will be constituted from Institutes of Technology (or, more likely, amalgamations of several ITs), and will be expected to continue the traditional mission of ITs, whatever additional functions they take on as TUs.

Differences between TUs and Universities

The government’s plan is therefore not to broaden the university sector as such, but to fill out the spectrum of institutions at this level. TUs will have a mandate which is distinct from, though overlapping with, the university mandate. As the Hunt Report puts it (p105),

A technological university will be distinguished from existing universities by a mission and ethos that are faithful to and safeguard the current ethos and mission focus of the institutes of technology. These are based on career-focused higher education with an emphasis on provision at levels 6 to 8 and on industry-focused research and innovation – this will have to be taken to a higher level in a technological university.

Various other functions at levels 6 to 8 will also be expected from the TUs, “including an emphasis on workplace learning”. TUs will play a significant role at levels 9 to 10 – indeed, some ITs already do – but “the major proportion of activity at these levels will be concentrated within the existing university sector” (p105).

It is not expected that any of the TUs will be redesignated as universities under the existing power to do so (Universities Act, 1997, s 9), and Hunt specifically endorses the refusal to do so to date: “no application to convert any institute of technology into a university should be considered” (p101). In other words, full university status is not on offer, and new legislation will be needed to create the new TU status.

Designation as TU: process and politics

Crudely put, there are two issues to be considered before an IT (or an amalgamation of ITs) can be redesignated as a TU: whether the institution is fit to carry out the functions of a TU, and whether Ireland has room for such a new institution. Hunt proposed that the two issues be considered together, as the first stage of the designation process, and if an expert panel ruled in favour of redesignation then a second panel would look more closely at the fitness issue (p104).

But a later report by Simon Marginson disagreed. The issue of whether there is room for a new TU is political in a way that the fitness issue is not: existing universities will object that a new TU will compromise their interests, and balancing the interests around that issue would be the stuff of politics. Accordingly, the issue of fitness should come first:

Bluntly, the danger is that the politics of the application, being foregrounded at this point in the process, would contaminate if not overwhelm an objective assessment based on the criteria. Any consortia should be allowed to submit a proposal under the criteria and be evaluated accordingly. Its quality should be the consideration that matters. It should not have to clear a political hurdle before being heard on the merits. There is no need to address the questions of planning and duplication unless it is certain that there is a potential TU in the offing. (Marginson report p2, emphasis added)

It seems likely, therefore, that the process will be divided into a number of stages – keeping politics out of the process would of course be a hopeless aspiration, but the hope would be that sufficient facts and reliable technical judgment could be inserted into the process to avoid a simple political free-for-all.

The process – early views

Hunt envisaged two expert reviews, the second of which would consider the application if the first approved.

  • The first “would assess the application in terms of institutional
    performance and in terms of the wider system implications if the application were approved”. Relevant matters would include the impact of redesignation, the success of the institution in participating in regional clusters, and the institution’s capacity of institutional leadership, governance and management processes.
  • The second review would assess the quality of the institution’s performance, to assess whether it meets the standards expected of a technological university. Relevant matters would include the institution’s strategic vision for the development of its technological university role, its record of engagement with local and national business and public sector, and its record of international collaborations with institutions with similar missions.

Other criteria were stated to be relevant (though who was to consider them was left unclear): these include “A culture of sustained scholarship which informs teaching and learning”, “Scale and critical mass sufficient to sustain institutional activity” and “Governance procedures .. underpinned by the values and goals of the technological university”.

As explained above, Marginson doubts whether this two-stage process is appropriate. His report focuses on the criteria to be used, rather than the process itself, but comments:

One solution to the conundrum might be to move some of the first stage Hunt criteria into the second stage, or even create three stages (threshold national judgment of merits according to the criteria, planning considerations, international standard).

He also comments on the role that metrics should play in the process. The use of numerical metrics and targets have their advantages here, he argues. They can be applied objectively without the need for expert judgments; they are easier to defend in public; and they can act as very strong drivers, by giving institutions clear hurdles to jump before their applications can be considered. But there are disadvantages too. It is hard to nuance metrics to make appropriate allowances for local conditions. And while they would strongly influence institutional behaviour, not all the consequences of that are forseeable, nor obviously desirable. On balance, Marginson proposed that use of metrics be “selective and spare”. “Those metrics that have been chosen are seen as central markers of a TU sector.”

Marginson himself produced a detailed list of criteria, under 9 headings (Mission, Profile, International, Teaching, Research, Staff, Leadership, Funding, and Quality Assurance). The matter is now in the hands of the HEA, and final criteria are expected by the end of January.

The process – final version

The final version of the process has now been published, and for one journalist’s summary see here – for the full report, see here. It includes the following:

  • An expert panel drawn up by the HEA – and made up of international experts – will assess each application for TU status.
  • The number of students at master’s/doctorate levels “will not be less” than 4% of all enrolment. In addition, the college must raise these enrolments to 7% within a decade of designation as a TU;
  • At least 45% of full time academic staff will hold a doctorate level or the equivalence in professional experience, combined with a terminal degree appropriate to their profession;
  • Research will focus on applied, problem-oriented research and social and technological development, with direct social and economic impacts and public and private benefits where the university is located;
  • The new TU will be capable of supporting research that can be compared to appropriate international benchmarks.

Politics or process?

Two views of the move towards designation of TUs are apparent in recent commentary.

One view proclaims the primacy of politics. The ultimate decisions here will rest with national politicians, it is argued, and while no doubt there will be much paperwork before a conclusion is reached, this is largely for show. Given the interests of key political figures here, a South-East TU (Waterford IT + IT Carlow) is a done deal, and a Dublin TU (Dublin IT + IT Blanchardstown + IT Tallaght) is not far behind. (See especially ‘Quinn to approve technology university in southeastIrish Times 17 January 2012.)

The other view stresses process. The detailed processes being designed are not simply a succession of soap-boxes to enable interested parties to recycle their own self-interested views without opposition. The step-by-step consideration of issues also allows for a considerable injection of actual facts, both about the Irish higher education sector as a whole, and about relevant international developments. It will also allow those with a weak political base to have their views considered. While ultimately the decision is a political one, the process places very real limits on what the politicians might do, both through a need to appear even-handed and through fear of legal challenge if attention to process becomes mere lip-service. As to what will emerge from the process, it is much too early to say.

It is unsurprising therefore that the Minister has responded to speculation by insisting that a purely political view is “very misleading”, and that key questions “will be determined by meeting the criteria established independently and not by any political decision” (Ruairi Quinn, Dáil debates, 19 January). The role of politics is not denied, but it will not squeeze all else out.

In conclusion, therefore, it is not either/or. Both politics and process will play substantial roles. Process will do much to limit what decisions can plausibly be taken, and on what time-scale. And when the eventual political decision is made, the options open to the decision-makers will be heavily influenced by what the process has brought to light.

References

National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 – Report of the Strategy Group (the Hunt report) (January 2011)

Criteria for Technological University Designation (the Marginson report) (February 2011)

General Scheme of the Technological Universities Bill (January 2014)

Seán Flynn, “Quinn to approve technology university in southeast” (Irish Times, Tuesday, 17 January 2012)

Third Level Courses (Dáil debates, Thursday, 19 January 2012)

Seán Flynn, “Third-level presidents oppose new university” (Irish Times, Monday, 23 January 2012)

Seán Flynn, “Conditions agreed for universities of technology” (Irish Times, Tuesday, 7 February 2012)