The technological education sector has been part of the landscape in Ireland for a long time. In the case of my own institution, Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), we trace our roots to the foundation of the Limerick Athenaeum in 1852, founded with the aim of being “open to all, irrespective of class, creed or cultural background”.
The sector however is also very much about contemporary Ireland. It’s about being responsive and engaged, being close to what’s happening on the ground in our respective regions, and about doing the kind of teaching and research that meets the need of the communities that we serve. Just as the Limerick Athenaeum was a response to the society of its time, so too, our sector has been a response to the emergence of contemporary Ireland. The legislation that formalised and structured the technological education sector here was passed in the last 50 years, a period during which Irish society has undergone a huge transformation.
The potential for technological higher education in Ireland is very significant, and the recent Technological Universities Act reflects that potential.
Already, we see a new technological university emerging for Dublin – it will become the largest university in Ireland and will meet a range of needs in Dublin for distinct approaches to teaching and research. As more new technological universities (TUs) come on stream, higher education in Ireland will change and develop in new ways.
So this is an exciting time for the technological higher education in Ireland, but also one that brings some threats to this most productive of sectors. It is important that the new TUs remain true to the spirit of regional development and providing access for all, as well as being engaged and responsive to industry, business, social and cultural needs. It’s also important that they avoid developing with a big U and a small T in order to make impressions on World Ranking Tables, and thus be driven by the criteria of others rather than the communities they now serve so well.
The higher education system has served this country exceptionally well. Part of this has been the complementarity rather than open competition between the two main strands of that system, traditional universities and the technological sector. The advent of TUs will bring a very new dynamic and much more competition between these two sub-sectors.
It is worth noting in this period of change that there is nothing outdated with the individual and collective mission of the technological sector as it exists now pre-TU designation. The sector has continuously delivered for Ireland either as regional technical colleges or as institutes of technology. One of its major strengths has been its orientation toward the needs of communities and regions.
Because we must be responsive to the particular needs of our regions, each institution will develop in a different way. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. For example, we in LIT have set out our objective of becoming a technological university, but in the context of being as flexible as possible so that we can respond to the needs of the midwest region in a way that gives the best possible outcomes for the economy and society.
Our stakeholders in industry, business and the community have told us that this is the kind of institution they need us to be, and we have responded to them by putting in place a five-year strategy that will do just that. This is where LIT’s identity lies.
Because we must be responsive to the particular needs of our regions, each institution will develop in a different way. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all process
But the reality is that for the technological higher education sector to achieve its potential for Ireland, we need two things – clarity of vision, and increased investment. Both are critical, and the need for investment is also urgent.
The Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) is the representative body for technological higher education in Ireland. It has found that the sector needs a minimum additional investment of over €400 million over the next five years.
Furthermore, it is proposing that this investment should be managed through a partnership between the state and the sector so that the payoff to the state will explicitly achieve the objectives in the National Development Plan, Project Ireland 2040.
But the reality is that for the technological higher education sector to achieve its potential for Ireland, we need two things – clarity of vision, and increased investment
What is this money needed for? Well, the kind of activity that one would expect modern higher education to deliver: digitisation and the digital campus, disruptive technologies driven by state-of-the-art STEM equipment and regional advocacy in relation to sustainability and climate change, to name but three.
The reason it is needed is to ensure that Ireland’s graduates are work-ready for the workplace they will emerge into. This in turn will keep investment coming into the regions, and will sustain economic development and a more diverse economic base.
If we do not invest now (and unlike universities, institutes of technology cannot borrow to fund this kind of activity), the sector will slip into a position where it is no longer fit for purpose. Some institutes may even lose their viability and that is something that is in nobody’s interest, least of all the desire for a more equitable Irish society.