Third-level education in Ireland is set for a massive structural change with the Technological Universities Bill 2015. The Bill sets out the framework for allowing Institutes of Technology to merge together to form new Technological Universities, once they meet certain criteria. These changes could affect the futures of up to 10 of the 14 Institutes in Ireland.
This move has its origins in government cutbacks and predictions for the future of third-level education. One can look at how such a change has come about, how problems easily arise, and why it is proving to be a slow moving process.
The Background: Government Reports
Finance has proved to be a main driving force behind the proposed mergers. The McCarthy Report, chaired by UCD Professor Colm McCarthy, was released in 2009. Entitled “Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes”, it became known as An Bord Snip Nua.
In “Volume II: Detailed Papers”, proposals are outlined to “rationalise” the education sector by recommending the merging of institutions. Specific recommendations included dissolving both Blanchardstown Institute of Technology and Tallaght Institute of Technology, and incorporating them into the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), in order to “reduce the risk of duplicate investments in research infrastructure and teaching staff.”
The report stated that amalgamations should also begin “including institutes of technology outside Dublin in favour of having fewer institutions, which would benefit from operating on a larger scale (ideally with a minimum of 1,000 students).” The Group called for the procedure to follow a “regional rather than a county approach.”
The “National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030” was released in January 2011. Known as the Hunt Report, after its chairman Colin Hunt, it advocated a cluster approach to managing third-level institutions. It stated that “consolidation should be promoted to create amalgamated institutes of technology that participate in regional clusters with partner universities of a similar scale in order to deliver on a range of national policy outcomes.”
It also argued that “stronger, consolidated institutes of technology, created through mergers, will perform better to their traditional missions and values, and also be better able to respond to changed economic and social circumstances.”
These Reports are seen as having laid the foundations of future third-level policy by promoting the idea that Institutes of Technology can be operated more effectively and cheaply through mergers.
Differences between a University and a Technological University
Irish universities are recognised under the Universities Act 1997. Section 9 sets out the procedure under which a new university can be recognised. The government can set up a body consisting of “international experts and national experts, including employees of universities to which this Act applies,” to advise the HEA whether, “having regard to the objects and functions of a university under sections 12 and 13, an educational institution should be established as a university.”
The idea of a Technological University was raised in the Hunt Report. As set out in the Bill, only a merged institute can apply to become a technological university. Two or more colleges can apply for a section 18 order to form a merged institute.
Interestingly, the functions of a university and a technological university appear to be different. The 1997 Act sets out a limited number of functions for a university. In contrast, the section 22 of the Bill lists out a large range of functions and obligations on the institution. It is worth reading in ful the list of functions and obligations it must adhere to, and includes obligations like promoting businesses and collaborating with companies in the region, to fostering connections with local authorities. Given how some of these involve functions which are clearly subjective and open to change, like cultural and demographic factors, this could prove troublesome.
Provisions in the Bill
The current Bill has 117 sections, accompanied by two schedules. Sections 7 and 8 of the Bill allows for Blanchardstown IT and Tallaght IT to be fully dissolved, which will allow for the transfer of all of their functions to DIT. Similarly, sections 10 and 11 allow for the dissolution of Cork IT and Tralee IT and the transfer of their functions to a new merged institution. Although the Bill does not name the new institution, commentators and lectures refer to it as the Munster Technological University (MTU).
The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) want the Bill to be delayed for further debate. The fear they have over how the mergers can be funded, and their impact on staff, is the basis on which the TUI is calling for a delay.
Last December, 92% of lecturers from Institutes of Technology voted to hold a one day strike on Wednesday, 3rd February in opposition to these cuts. They find themselves operating in a situation where student numbers have risen as staff levels dropped. The TUI is claiming that students and institutions themselves will face the cost of financing the mergers.
Dr Tom O’Connor, a lecturer in the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), explained the situation in a column in the Irish Examiner. “From 2008 to 2015, lecturers and students have borne the effect of a cut of 35% (€190 million) in institute of technology funding nationally, combined with a rise of 32% (21,411) in student numbers, alongside a fall in lecturer numbers by 9.5% over the period.”
O’Connor maintained that lecturers in CIT and Tralee IT are not opposed to the merger itself, but rather its educational impact. He argued that as the main basis for the merger is for cutting costs, set out in the Hunt Report and the An Bord Snip Nua report. As the reports want duplicate courses to be cut, lecturers fear that similar courses which are operated in both institutions may be dropped, leading to a scenario where a course once run both in Cork and Tralee may now only be available in Tralee.
Dail Debates: Who said what?
While there is no general opposition to the Bill itself, opposition parties are seeking assurances over financing the mergers and the administration of the new institutions. The Bill entered the Second Stage of the legislative process before Christmas, and was debated in the Dáil.
Speaking at the time, Jan O’Sullivan, Minister for Education and Skills, said the Bill “provides for new and modernised governance structures in the institutes of technology, as well as for other reforms to allow them to become more flexible and responsive to their environment.”
Charlie McConalogue, Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on Education and Skills, hit out at the delays in the process and called out the funding issue, when he noted the “unsustainable position” currently facing several institutions. He said that these problems were not issues “which can be isolated from the policy development in regard to mergers and working towards technological university status.”
Possible threats to academic freedom through short-term staff contracts were highlighted by Jonathan O’Brien, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson Education and Skills. He said he had “serious concerns that the academic councils will be exploited by business interests and that the framing of the Bill is complicit in allowing this to happen.” O’Brien called on the government to protect Academic freedom by “means of secure tenured employment and by maintaining ministerial inquiry in cases of dismissal. The idea that can have true academic freedom without a secure system of employment is incredibly naive.”
He noted that there is a “casualisation of third level employment alongside the increasing neo-liberalisation of the sector. It used to be the case that people complained about being on one-year contracts, but now nine-month contracts are being given to people and people are being put on hourly pay.” O’Brien claimed that “some in third level faculties, who should know better, are employing PhD graduates on the JobBridge scheme.”
In total, TDs have proposed 133 amendments to the Bill, with O’Brien, McConalogue and various Independent TDs responsible for the majority of them. Opposition parties have raised the possibility of introducing an amendment requiring unions at the institutions to approve of the merger, brought about by the planned TUI strike in February. Any such amendment, if given legislative effect, would effectively allow the unions to halt a proposed merger if the staff opposed it. The Minister outright rejected this on the basis that it would give one group a “veto” over the entire process.
Problems with Mergers: Carlow and Waterford
Leaders at various institutions have been negotiating possible mergers for the last few years. The problems that have arisen in some instances serve as a warning of the difficulties that can arise. The history of the proposed merger between Carlow IT and Waterford IT (WIT) is the perfect example of everything that can go wrong. The differences between whether WIT could achieve university status by itself or if it needed to merge with Carlow IT to become a technological university, added to the problem.
The original idea behind the merger was that Waterford IT needed to absorb Carlow IT in order to succeed with an application for it to be recognised as a university. However, WIT pulled out of talks in October 2014. At the time a view was expressed that WIT was close to gaining university status, and that merging with Carlow IT could hinder it. Carlow IT said the decision came as a shock to them.
The Department of Education and Skills enlisted Michael Kelly, a former Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), to produce a report the situation and repair relations between the sides. His report, released in July 2015, stated there was “no real alternative” to a merger due the lack of other institutions in the south east. Kelly noted there is a “widely-felt strong sense of entitlement to a university” in Waterford, based on the city’s size and the long-term ambition of WIT to be recognised as a university. The report took six months, during which time Kelly was unable to get both sides to meet with each other. It has taken at least six hired facilitators, tens of thousands of euro in public funds, and nearly a full year to get the two sides back to the negotiating table. This fiasco serves as a clear warning of the precarious situation mergers create.
Originally planned to be enacted into law before the General Election, upcoming union action and the gravity of the measures proposed have ensured the debate over the status of Institutes of Technology will continue on into the future.
- Cian Carton, News Editor