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Merger Mania and the Race for University Status

February 29, 2012

Will all the IOT Presidents Cross the University Line?

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has fired the starting gun on the race for university status . The criteria for designation as a ‘technological university’ were included as a mere appendix to a wider document with ambitious notions about restructuring the entire higher education sector.

For the most part, these HEA proposals are a mish mash of structural changes that have little to do with improving the quality of education. Written with the buzzwords of a jaded MBA module, the HEA document sets out how the ‘landscape’ at third level is to be upended into a new ‘configuration’ of consolidated institutions that will offer ‘differentiated’ courses in ‘clusters’ of ‘collaboration’.  Despite the intolerable blather, the objectives are reasonably sensible but there is utter confusion about how to get there.

The Growth Illusion

The Network for Educational Standards has long argued that grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. The HEA has now belatedly recognised the predominantly expansionist ambitions of the colleges:

The State’s policies of responding to the growing demand for higher education opportunities was, and is, reflected in a funding model largely determined by student numbers which implicitly incentivises growth…A further consequence of the promotion of growth has been both a proliferation of under-graduate programmes within many institutions, resulting in fragmentation of offerings and a loss of focus on core missions and strengths (Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, p3).

All of this suggests an urgent need for a focus on the quality of education and a review of the appropriateness of course provision at varying levels. However, the HEA flunks the educational challenge and instead opts for more growth as it opines that ‘further expansion of higher education is inevitable and essential’. In a decade of budget cuts, it sees institutional restructuring as the tool that will facilitate such expansion. Thus the illusory dictum of ‘doing more with less’.

Merger Mania in Institutes of Technology 

Even before the HEA had announced these proposals the presidents of the thirteen Institutes of Technology (IoTs) scrambled to outdo one another with a series of grandiose merger proposals that would see them right for university status.

I Hereby Join These Institutions...

The Border Midlands West Technological University (IT Galway + Athlone + Sligo + Letterkenny + Dundalk)  would create the ‘largest higher education institution in the state’.  The South East University (IT Waterford + Carlow) was reported to be virtually certain with the backing of two local government ministers. In a bizarre contribution, the Minister for Jobs and Enterprise explained that the decision of the TalkTalk call centre to close down its facility in Waterford would “accelerate” the establishment of a southeast technological university. Meanwhile, the Munster Technological University (IT Cork + Limerick + Tralee) would become the largest higher educational institution in Munster.  In such a media scramble the long announced Dublin Technological University (DIT + Tallaght + Blanchardstown) struggled for attention.

The Realpolitik of University Designation

The HEA criteria for attaining technological university status are indeed challenging for the IOTs. The Minister for Education has set the bar reasonably high and proclaimed that “a number of institutes have indicated that they are interested in applying before they have even seen the criteria…Once they see them, they may change their view”.

The requirement for 45% of academic staff to hold a doctorate is a key stumbling block as the current average in the sector is around 20%. Apparently the presidents of the IoTs wanted a 25% threshold but the university presidents lobbied for a 75% requirement (as DCU had when it achieved university status in 1989). In the event, the HEA split the difference and arrived at an arbitrary 45%. Unlike the universities, lecturers in the IoTs are full-time teachers with a minimum of 18 hours lectures per week. With a recruitment embargo and a demand under Croke Park for ever more teaching  hours, there is no prospect of a sudden transformation into research institutions.

However, all of the IoTs are still pushing ahead with the race for technological university status. Steering groups have been formed and  expert consultants employed. The IoT presidents are obsessed with the ‘big project’ and have rightly taken the view that the university criteria are a moveable feast in a process that will be more about obtaining political support than a rigid application of the technical criteria. There is no substantial differentiation between any of the regional IoT groups so they will all obtain the same status. They will all be eventual winners – the only competition is about who will be first over the line.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. cormac permalink
    March 8, 2012 7:24 pm

    Interesting post. I agree with much of the comment here. It’s worth pointing out that the origin of the current mania for amalgamation in the IoT sector is a rather unclear suggestion in the Hunt report that seems to be inconsistent with the bulk of the report. That one suggestion has left the door open for the whole TU crusade. I’m begining to think it might be a good idea to revisit the report before this goes any further…

  2. Claus Derenda permalink
    March 12, 2012 11:53 am

    There is only ONE reason behind the current mania for amalagamations (paired with the subsequent scramble for TUs) and it has absolutely NOTHING to do with education but with COST SAVING.
    The only reason why this is pushed so hard by the powers that be is that they don’t want to waste a good crisis and they see this as an ideal opportunity to further erode the conditions of service in IoT sector. The ultimate goal of government and mangements in the IoT sector is not to create new universities ON A PAR with existing ones. The REAL target is to create a kind of ‘hybrid’ university which (for lecturers) combines the negative elements in the universities (i.e. longer teaching year, larger class groups, higher research demands) with the negative elements in the IoTs (longer working hours per week). So, when it comes to being offered this ‘new opportunity’ we should really pay heed to the old caveat: “Just because the strange man is offering you sweets is not a good enough reason to climb in the back of his windowless van!”

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