The institutes of technology in Cork and Tralee should merge sooner for their planned application to become a technological university, say experts who evaluated their proposal.
Although an international panel agreed before Christmas that the Munster Technological University (MTU) project is likely to meet the criteria to become a TU, there are significant issues to be addressed.
The colleges plan to formally merge, which is required before applying to be designated a TU, in August 2016. But the experts appointed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) believe the timescale is long, compared to other cases.
In their report to the HEA, seen by the Irish Examiner, they recognise the need for careful preparation and consultation with stakeholders.
But they point to “evident risks” with the timescale, including prolonged staff and student uncertainty, and delays to efficiencies, inward investment, and international recognition that could result.
“Given what was said in our discussion with the proposers about their perception of the advantages of achieving university status, we remain unsure why the proposers would not wish to proceed as fast as possible,” the report says.
The three-member panel appointed last summer to evaluate the proposal, and that of four institutes of technology in Dublin, was chaired by Professor Lauritz B Holm-Nielsen, ex-rector of a Danish university with merger experience.
An MTU project spokesman said the colleges intend sticking broadly to the original merger timeframe, as set out in last June’s submission to the HEA.
But it could be another three years before the formal TU application is made, which they expect to do in the 2017/18 academic year.
“The proposed MTU already substantially meets the criteria. In the areas where we do not already meet the criteria we have demonstrated a clear plan and trajectory towards meeting the criteria,” he told the Irish Examiner.
The panel’s proposals to speed up a merger have been criticised by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, whose branches in the Cork and Tralee colleges say academic staff were not met by the experts and have not been properly consulted by management.
The panel says plans to reach a 4% target for postgraduate research students, currently at 3% across CIT and ITT, are entirely plausible.
But the HEA has yet to decide what level of professional experience among some academic staff can be determined as equivalent to a PhD, a qualification that 45% of staff must have for TU status to be granted.
Up to 10% of academics with suitable expertise and qualifications, but who do not have a PhD, could be counted towards that target.
The colleges’ June 2014 submission said 29% of combined staff had PhDs, 25% had equivalent professional experience, and 15% were engaged in doctoral studies.
Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan told the Dáil yesterday that the requirement for colleges to merge to apply for TU status cannot be changed, despite concerns at Waterford Institute of Technology that merging with IT Carlow would hinder their chances.
She expects a report by the end of March from former HEA chairman Michael Kelly who is trying to get the south-east TU project back on track after WIT withdrew from merger talks in October.
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