Opposition to the creation of technological universities has come from many quarters over recent years. The role of members of the Higher Education Authority is not to undermine stated government policy, writes Seán Sherlock.
Back in March 2011, the programme for government agreed between the Labour Party and Fine Gael contained a commitment to examine the idea of a technological university split across multiple campuses in the South-East region.
This commitment was intended to clearly demonstrate a commitment to the South-East, but also reflected Labour’s view of how the higher education landscape could develop.
The idea of technological universities had emerged from the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, published in January 2011.
That report made clear that protecting the diversity created by the presence of both universities and institutes of technology was important. But equally, it had argued for the “development and evolution of institutes of technology into a smaller number of stronger amalgamated institutes”, with some of those institutes being redesigned as technological universities.
I was lucky enough to be appointed minister for research and innovation in 2011. For three years, I worked alongside Ruairí Quinn in promoting as well as reforming our higher education sector.
The creation of technological universities was one of our shared passions during that time.
As you might expect with a change of this nature, opposition arose from many quarters. There were some within the institute of technology sector who felt that the requirement to merge with another institution before re-designation could be achieved was an unnecessary obstacle.
There were many, particularly within the university sector, who saw this as a potential threat to their status within the landscape of higher education in Ireland, and who used every available avenue to seek to block the very idea of technological universities.
Sometimes, individual board members of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) weighed in on the debate, usually taking the side of the universities.
I believed then, as I do now, that bringing institutions together could allow us to create technological universities that would be of much higher value than the sum of their parts.
In my own part of the country, I passionately believed that the creation of a Munster technological university after the merger of CIT and IT Tralee would lead to better life outcomes for the people of Cork and Kerry.
I knew that we would need to make the process of achieving the re-designation difficult, but by no means impossible — we wanted to stretch the institutions to achieve something greater, but not to set the bar so high that nobody could ever hope to reach it.
In 2012, we published the criteria institutions would have to reach to be redesignated. And since then, the Munster and Dublin groups, in particular, have been making great efforts and progress towards this goal.
Alongside the department, in the middle of this debate, was the HEA. That body has an occasionally confusing role. Among other responsibilities, it is required to provide policy advice to the minister of the day regarding higher education in Ireland.
And yet, the national strategy published in 2011, and the expert group in funding of the sector published in 2016 are probably the two most significant pieces of policy advice regarding higher education published in the last decade. In both cases, it is noteworthy that policy advice was sought from independent groups of experts.
The reason why is fairly straightforward. The HEA itself is badly in need of reform. Under statute, it is required to have at least 15 board members — very far from best practice of how a body should be governed nowadays.
Half of these must be academics, and in truth, many of these represent the views of their own institutions when they sit at HEA meetings. Regularly, the idea of promoting higher education has in practice become the idea of promoting individual institutions, which raises questions about the capacity of the same body to then regulate the same institutions they are promoting.
If there are concerns about governance in the sector, the starting point for the debate should be the publication of legislation the department has been drafting to reform higher education governance, including the HEA.
Occasionally during my time, the HEA came dangerously close to crossing a line it should not cross.
Indeed, this happened more than once in the case of technological universities. And more than once, the HEA had to be reminded that while its policy advice would always be considered, it was not its role to seek to undermine government decisions or established national policy.
The work done in Munster, in Dublin, in the South-East and the North-West will result in some additional technological universities. It will definitely result in greater co-operation between the institutions in each region.
We will end up with institutions with greater clarity around their missions; better career paths and opportunities for staff; and most importantly, top quality student experiences.
Since this Government was formed last year, it has been in discussions with trade unions and others to make sure the enabling legislation that will allow for the creation of technological universities can attract widespread support.
Those discussions are now done, and I hope we will get on with this legislation when the Dáil comes back in the autumn.
From delving into a litany of abuses at the Garda Training College in Templemore to taking on waste in the higher education sector, the members of the PAC, including my colleague Alan Kelly, have worked to tackle public-sector waste and impropriety over recent months.
That’s the work they should continue with, rather than weighing in on whether the Munster technological university should proceed. For those of us that have been involved in that project for some years, we can see the benefits it will deliver.
Seán Sherlock is a Labour TD for Cork East and a former minister for research and innovation.
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