The case in favour of the technological universities is that they’ll be in a stronger position to attract research funding and international students, as well delivering a bigger impact locally and nationally.
Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor has said the legislation will underpin the development of a new type of higher education institution, "Building on the strengths and mission of institutes of technology to develop world class technological universities.”
Fórsa (and forerunner IMPACT) has been broadly supportive of the concept.
In 2016 our Institutes of Technology branch hosted a symposium
at the DIT Grangegorman campus with a range of international expert speakers.
We could see the potential for strong regional development, employment opportunities and new opportunities for students looking at higher level education options. Our emphasis then was on reaching a unified position with other trade unions on the merging of the institutes, in order to ensure a more central role for unions in the merger process.
But we do have some concerns.
The legislation has its origin in the Hunt report, published in January 2011, in the dying days of the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government. The new vision that it promotes must not lose sight of the particular regional and social mission of institutes of technology (formerly regional technical colleges) or the importance of maintaining a relentless approach to securing regional employment. This was the promise made by then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at the launch of the Enterprise 2025 strategy.
Some voices from the established university sector have suggested that the development will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of standards and the standing of Irish universities. This has been robustly dismissed by the minister.
The creation of a new type of university is bound to cause concern for existing universities, as it does significantly change the Irish university landscape. However, rather than being seen as a lowering of standards, the new legislation creates possibilities to expand the potential of our university sector.
I don’t think that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a closer level of engagement between our education system and enterprise. It makes sense that there is a connection with the country’s enterprise, skills and innovation strategies. Equally, one of the strengths of the technological university will be a greater emphasis on leadership and the anticipation, identification and response to critical skills gaps.
It’s almost certain that the university of the future will not look like the university of the past, particularly if it is to have a key part to play in raising living standards.
The creation of quality employment, regionally spread and accessible to all - not just those with high Leaving Cert points - should form part of the vision for our country. The government has yet to realise the important role that the trade union movement can play in achieving this objective, but that has not deterred us from contributing to the necessary groundwork to develop a new type of university.
We represent the staff who will shape the idea into reality, and have ensured their voice has been heard at all levels as the legislation made its way through the Oireachtas. Our members working in the higher education sector can take justifiable pride in their efforts to fully realise this new development in higher education.