As the Technological University Bill nears the final stages of the legislative process, much ambiguity persists as to what a technological university actually is. So familiar are we with its predecessor, the institute of technology, that the landscape of higher education in Ireland is difficult to picture without it. But if change is the result of all true learning, then the introduction of the Technological University promises to truly change the way we learn for decades to come.
Though the Minister for of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, believes that the technological university constitutes great change “in terms of their critical mass, reach and influence regionally, nationally and internationally”, the institute of technology has humble origins, evolving from the regional technical college in the late 1960s. With ambitions to join the European Economic Community, Ireland was poised on the brink of widespread industrialisation and financial prosperity. However, with just 15 per cent of the population progressing to third-level education, the economy was not equipped to handle the magnitude of the changes it so desired.
“There was a sense of wanting to open up the country, to be more engaged”, Dr Joseph Ryan, CEO of Technological Higher Education Authority of Ireland (THEA) explains to The University Times, of the initial introduction of the institute of technology. Before foreign investment could be tempted to our shores, questions needed to be addressed. “How can one be competitive? How could we attract multinational companies? How could we support an industrial base?”
The institute of technology was seen as an engine for change
A need for more diverse, vocationalist education was beginning to be recognised. The focus on agrarian careers and studies of arts and humanities needed to expand in order to include the huge cohort of prospective students with skills more suited to technical, applied learning. Speaking to The University Times, Ciaran O’Sullivan, a National Teaching Expert Award winner and lecturer at the Institute of Technology Tallaght, explains: “I think at the time the view was that there needed to be more of a higher level of technical education for students so that there would be an alternative path. The institute of technology was seen as an engine for change.”
Certainly, the institute of technology has evolved considerably from such humble origins. Fourteen highly reputable, well-respected institutes are dotted across the country today that continue to produce high-quality graduates and impressive research projects. “In European terms, Ireland is very strongly admired because of the way we built this diversified landscape”, Ryan said. In recognising that “society tends to be much more porous” than to simply accommodate the needs of academic learners, the institute of technology has made higher education accessible to the masses, which leaders are adamant will not be lost in the move towards the technological university.
However, the label of an institute of technology has proven to be a hindrance to success for some colleges. “The university brand is a powerful one and is much more attractive to international faculty. With the exceptions of institutes like MIT, the institute of technology brand is largely unknown around the world”, Richard Hayes, Vice President for Strategy for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), tells The University Times.
Ryan echoed this, detailing how he encountered only sporadic recognition of what an institute of technology represents when working abroad. “If I’m in a place like India, that name is understood and people really like it”, he explained. “But in different theatres, you can end up just trying to explain definitions. You’re not selling anymore, you’re just trying to explain the ground rules.”
With this in mind, O’Sullivan describes the title of technological university as “the perfect name”. This concept is “well established worldwide”, he says. “It’s the name that people understand internationally for the blend of applied and academic learning that takes place at IT’s anyways.” In an increasingly globalised jobs market, graduate mobility is essential. Equipping graduates with a qualification easily identifiable overseas is an invaluable asset in terms of employment prospects.
However, the institute of technology is historically a very local conception. Having evolved from Regional Technical Colleges where the skills taught mirrored the needs of the local community, there has always been a strong emphasis on enabling graduates to contribute to the Irish economy. Though this has become more nuanced over the years, Ryan admits that today’s institutes of technology each have “individual personalities that are rooted within their region. But the shift into technological universities is not going to change that, the regional basis is very strongly built into the Bill”.
The tradition of the institutes of technology will not be forsaken in the transition to a new university
Neither will the name change shift the focus away from the social basis upon which the IT’s were founded. “The tradition of the institutes of technology will not be forsaken in the transition to a new university”, Hayes asserts. They were formed with the intention of broadening access to higher education regardless of age or background, and Hayes insists that this “very strong social development focus will remain core to the mission of any new university”.
Despite noting the fact that there may not be the parity of esteem between technical and traditional education in Ireland that exists in economies such as Germany, O’Sullivan is eager to avoid a drift away from applied learning towards academia. “I think it would be a loss for the country as a whole if it was just to become another university. We have a different mission. We do different things and we’re good at different things.”
Similarly, Ryan agrees that “we don’t have any ambition as a sector to be something other than what we are”. The difference between both routes is underpinned in the wording of the Bill, with Mitchell O’Connor insisting that it will focus “on the combined strengths of our excellent institutes of technology to develop into top class technological universities”.
One change that is significant, however, can be gleaned from a mere cursory read of the Bill. The increased emphasis on research did not form part of the original blueprint for what an institute of technology set out to achieve. “What was at the heart of that was to be catalysts for regional development”, Ryan said. But as the needs of local industry move forward, so to must the work of institutes of technology, he believes. “If you’re going to serve the local enterprise, you’re going to try and conduct research and it is very much going to be determined by the needs of the regional focus.”
In this sense, the Technological University Bill, for all its supposed complexity, strikes the perfect balance between regional and global prospects, teaching and learning interests. Broadening the accessibility of higher education, far from being neglected in this transformative process, is more at the heart of the matter than ever, as the Bill seeks to enable institutes of technology to maintain their autonomy whilst strengthening their global brand.
“We have a small population. We cannot be in any way cutting out any section of our population on any basis. The health of the society depends on us affording opportunity to the maximum number of people”, Ryan confirms.
“Notwithstanding all of the really interesting debate around the Technological University Bill, ultimately what this is about is enchanting the opportunity for the learner.”