Additional funding and acknowledgement of staff concerns will be vital to the success of the country’s first technological university, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has told Education Minister Richard Bruton.
The concerns were raised in a letter supporting the recommendations of a panel of international experts to allow three institutes of technology in Dublin to create the first technological university (TU).
The minister announced his decision to grant the application for TU status in July. Subject to Dáil and Seanad approval, he will make an order to permit Blanchardstown, Dublin, and Tallaght institutes of technology to merge and create Technological University Dublin on January 1, 2019.
As preparations for the formal establishment of the TU continue, the HEA board’s advice on which the minister’s decision was made has emerged. It shows its concerns for the project, particularly in relation to funding and staffing issues.
At a June 26 meeting, the HEA board considered the very positive report of the four-member panel who visited the three colleges to meet management, staff, and students. Chaired by European Universities Association adviser Andree Sursock, the panel was impressed by work to date and enthusiasm for the project.
The panel said the resource ramifications of a new technological university had yet to be determined and that unexpected spending may be needed during an unstable post-merger phase of at least five years.
In the panel’s judgement, economies of scale will not necessarily be realised by merger, at least at the beginning. However, statements were made during interviews with staff that possibilities exist to do more with current funding in some areas,” states the report.
The HEA said international experience shows that adequate funding is a key factor in the success of complex higher education mergers.
“Given the widely publicised gaps in current funding of Irish higher education, and the backlog of calls on any additional funding that might be made available, it will be important to ensure that the funding of any technological university project does not come at the expense of the wider higher education and research system,” the HEA wrote to Mr Bruton.
It advised him that the complexity associated with contract changes and other staffing matters in the transition to a TU should not be underestimated. The panel suggested, for example, a possible need for changes to academic contracts to ensure an appropriate balance between teaching and research arising from the greater research activity that will be needed.
While it heard no dissenting staff voices on the need and desire for the project during its visits to the campuses, the panel was told that about 10%-15% of staff had some reluctance about the change.
The HEA told Mr Bruton that, in a conversation on how to improve the assessment process, the panel chair noted its visits had not included a session to allow them to hear and understand those concerns.
The impact on research reputation was also flagged, given the likely dilution of research rankings previously held by Dublin Institute of Technology, whose age means it has a stronger research culture than the other two colleges.
The HEA proposed a follow-up review a year after the new TU is created, to examine progress and assess how the issues raised by the authority and the panel are being addressed.