IT heads’ level of distrust saw discussion stall

‘Stepping stone’ approach urged to rebuild respect between ITs and restart bid for joint university

IT heads’ level of distrust saw discussion stall

The level of distrust between Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology meant top figures from both would not even sit down together during seven months of efforts to restart their joint university bid.

The facilitator appointed last November to get the colleges back talking about a merger needed for a technological university (TU) application has recommended a ‘stepping stone’ approach to rebuild trust and respect between them.

Michael Kelly has told Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan that getting the process back on track is achievable but it will not be easy.

He believes that the merged colleges could reach the standards needed to make a formal bid for TU status within three years.

The former chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and ex-secretary general of the Department of Health was appointed by the minister last November to “reinvigorate” the process. This followed WIT’s suspension of all merger activities, with a belief that it should be allowed to proceed on its own with a technological university application.

A report on his efforts, submitted earlier this month and published yesterday, said the extent of the erosion of trust between the two colleges was striking.

“Given the position taken by WIT, it did not prove possible to have any roundtable engagement involving both institutes as part of this process,” he wrote.

It was also impossible to produce figures on where the combined institutions would stand currently against the various standards required to become a TU, a vital starting point for efforts to move towards a formal application.

Because of the distrust and questions from both campuses about each other’s commitment to the project, Mr Kelly says a preliminary engagement between the chairs and presidents of WIT and IT Carlow is vital before any substantive re-engagement is at all possible.

“This would need to ventilate the underlying reasons for the current state of relationships and create a framework within which mutual trust and respect can be re-built, as a stepping stone to substantive engagement,” Mr Kelly wrote.

Among the problems identified by Mr Kelly was a difficulty in establishing quality of esteem, and a widely held view in WIT that it is already “at university level”.

“Many instances of negative commentary, formal and informal, have been unhelpful and hurtful to staff and students and corrosive to the process of collaboration,” he wrote.

While WIT figures were of the view that it would reach the TU standards quicker on its own, 2012 HEA rules mean an application must come from a body formed by the merger of two or more institutes of technology.

The issue was further complicated last October by a draft of a report for WIT by a UK academic suggesting it could satisfy the TU criteria far sooner alone than after a merger with IT Carlow, but Mr Kelly asked that it be withdrawn due to errors.

Ms O’Sullivan accepted the resignation in November of WIT governing body chairman Donie Ormonde, who has been replaced since by Dick Langford, State Examinations Commission chairman until earlier this year.

In March, WIT president Ruaidhri Neavyn, the former president of IT Carlow, moved to the HEA as an adviser on the institute of technology sector.

Ins and outs of university status talks

2011

May to December: Frequent meetings but little concrete progress in talks between Institute of Technology Carlow (ITC) and Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

2012

February: Higher Education Authority (HEA) publishes criteria for technological university, including standards for student mix, staff qualifications and range of courses.

July: Formal expression of interest by ITC and WIT in seeking TU status.

2013

May: Expression of interest approved.

July: Quigley report published on financial governance at WIT, commissioned by Department of Education.

(Ex-HEA chair Michael Kelly, appointed talks facilitator in November 2014, said yesterday Quigley’s findings “hardened attitudes in ITC around the need for robust financial diligence”.)

Late 2013: External merger project co-ordinator appointed but deep challenges emerging: nature of due diligence planned by each college on each other; design of multi-campus structure; barriers to compiling joint metrics for TU criteria.

2014

March: WIT commissions international academic John Taylor to test rationale behind proposed partnership and likelihood of TU designation. Described by Kelly report as “an unusual step at this stage of the process”.

June/July: ITC consultants encounter significant difficulties trying to undertake due diligence in WIT.

September: Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin emphasise need to progress to next stage to both presidents. Further external facilitator appointed, and agreement signed by both chairs and presidents, subject to governing bodies’ approval.

October: Preliminary draft of Taylor report circulated in WIT but author asks for it to be withdrawn, saying it contains errors; ITC governing body ratifies memo on October 13, but WIT governing body decide on October 21 to suspend merger activities.

November: Mr Kelly appointed by Ms O’Sullivan to ‘reinvigorate’ the process.

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