Row over status of third level facilities brewing

The Department of Education looks set to become embroiled in a political row over a Government policy that might allow a single institute of technology become a technological university.

The department is determined that two or more institutes of technology (IoTs) must merge in order for technological university (TU) status, despite a stipulation in last year’s Programme for Government that an exception might be made to that requirement.

The delayed bill to underpin the creation of a TU sector should get back on track shortly after IoT lecturers last week backed an deal addressing their concerns.

One of the main problems had been Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) opposition to what it said would be the forcing of mergers when there is no guarantee that two or more IoTs which merged would actually be designated a TU.

Such a merger will only now happen on the same date as a TU comes into existence after an application is assessed and approved.

It will mean a change to the chronology of steps to TU status which were first set out by the Higher Education Authority in 2012, in response to the 2011 Hunt Report on the sector that introduced the plan to establish a TU sector.

This change to the merger requirement will now be incorporated into amendments to the proposed law, along with other aspects of the agreement between TUI, the department and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) which represents management of IoTs.

The Technological Universities Bill was published by the previous education minister Jan O’Sullivan in December 2015 but has not been progressed since Richard Bruton became education minister just over a year ago.

However, a clause in the May 2016 Programme for Government states: “The requirement of a mandatory merger of existing institutions can be reviewed, if a case can be proven, that for geographical reasons, a merger isn’t feasible.”

It is understood to have been a concession to independent TD for Waterford John Halligan, a minister of state at the Department of Education for the past year, to ensure no hindrance to the ambitions of Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to achieve TU status.

WIT withdrew from merger talks with Institute of Technology Carlow in October 2014 and, even after a number of interventions brought the sides back to the table, they are a long way from a final application.

The Irish Examiner asked the Department of Education how it intends to incorporate the Programme for Government stipulation into the legislation.

A spokesperson said the bill provides that applications for TU designation can only be made by merged IoTs.

“The department is committed to the policy that the establishment of a technological university is only possible via an application by a consortium consisting of two or more institutes,” she said.

This would appear to minimise the possibility of Mr Bruton reflecting the Programme for Government clause, allowing exemption from the merger requirement, in any amendments to the bill.

Mr Halligan’s position at the Department of Education is uncertain after last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, in which Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s and Mr Bruton’s Fine Gael colleague Mary Mitchell O’Connor was moved there as a minister of state.

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