THE recent signing into law by President Michael D. Higgins of the Technological Universities Act 2018 marks a most significant expansion of not just the Irish Higher Education landscape but of the wider spectrum of Irish education.
Legislating the framework for the establishment of Technological Universities is a response to and a recognition of both the evolution of the Irish technological education sector and the demand for profession-focused education in Ireland and the key role the sector plays in the Irish economy.
Attaining the status of ‘Technological University’ will be due recognition of the continuous upwards trajectory in the sector developed through the dedicated commitment of staff within the Institutes of Technology. The success and highly regarded contribution of our graduates within enterprise, business and the community generally is clear testament to the status already achieved by both CIT and IT Tralee, partners in the Munster Technological University (MTU) consortium.
The Act has been the subject of energetic informed debate during its long passage and gestation period, with particular focus on the necessity for institutions to merge as part of the criteria to being considered for designation as a TU. Merging or ‘incorporation’ has been a feature of Irish HE landscape in recent times with a number of the Colleges of Education (Teacher Training) incorporated into bigger HE entities. The Further Education sector has also seen the merger of the country’s Vocational Education Committees into regional Education and Training Boards.
Technological Universities have long been a feature of European Higher Education, delivering industry, enterprise and community- focused education and applied research. The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries boast particularly strong examples of TUs.
The specific references in the Act to the desired make-up of the student cohort reinforces the existing reach of the IOTs into ‘non-CAO’ categories of learners. Thus, for example, minimum targets are set for the percentage of mature students (aged 23 or over), along with flexible learners , those registered as part-time, online or by distance learning. Thus the concept of learning as a lifelong pursuit, as proclaimed in the Cork Call for Action which emanated from the recent UNESCO Conference on Learning Cities, is supported by the Act. Included in these targets is the requirement for the new TUs to develop programmes in collaboration with business, enterprise, the professions, the community, local interests and other related stakeholders in the region.
The Learning Factory concept as profiled by CIT and local companies during the Cork UNESCO Conference is an example of this type of collaboration.
Criteria relating to staff qualifications, including recognising a need for professionally experienced staff, are well set out in the Act. As a TU, with a focus on applied research, serving the needs of industry and the community, it is important to have a significant number of academic staff with doctoral qualifications to lead on the research element but also to ensure academic teaching syllabi are up to speed with and indeed leading the way in terms of technological innovation.
The Act also recognises the importance of the dynamic connection with industry and enterprise, hence allowing for a certain quota of staff members who are recognised leaders in their respective chosen professions.
This element of the Act copper-fastens the longstanding tradition of profession-relevant teaching and engagement which has been a hallmark of the RTCs and IOTs now being continued on into Ireland’s TU era
It will be necessary to allocate significant resources to facilitate the establishment of a Technological University, and, thereafter, to ensure it survives and thrives in an increasingly competitive Higher Education environment. The recent decision by the Higher Education Authority to begin to restore the cost differential for programmes in Science, Technology and Engineering, the so-called STEM programmes, is welcome in this regard.
The Institutes of Technology, and now the new TUs, have a specific mission in this area and provide the graduate resource which has attracted Foreign Direct Investment in ICT and Pharma while allowing our Food and Bioprocessing companies to become global players. The development of region-specific TUs in Dublin, Munster and the Southeast, has been solidly referenced in the Government’s Project 2040. As Project 2040 is backed by a parallel national programme of investment, there is good confidence that the TU projects will be properly resourced, in start-up and transition phases, as well as into the future.
Research is a central activity in an institution educating graduates. It is recognised in the Act that only consortia already engaged in significant levels of research will qualify for consideration for TU designation. Also, the level of research is mandated to grow as a TU evolves, a reasonable expectation. This is where the question of resourcing will be key.
The heavy teaching load in the current IOT system will need to be revisited to allow research-active staff to fully embed research into the core of the TU. Teaching, Research and Engagement are three core strengths of the Munster Technological University. Each of these is to be sustained and developed even further in the context of TU. The current IOT funding model will need to be recast to enable this growth and ensure the new TU will excel in serving regional and national needs and compete successfully for international students and competitive research funding .
The ultimate test of the TU ‘project’ will be the quality of the graduates emerging from the new entities and the relevance of their acquired competences to not just respond to the needs of industry, enterprise and the community but to be the leaders and innovators in the challenging technology-driven society of tomorrow.