Brian Mooney: Creation of technological universities brings risks as well as benefits

webnexttech | Brian Mooney: Creation of technological universities brings risks as well as benefits

In a very short period, Ireland’s higher education landscape has undergone a radical shift.Twelve institutes of technology have come together to create five new technological universities.
The new technological universities, often referred to as TUs, are building on the strengths of the IT sector while also offering many of the benefits historically associated with the seven traditional universities.
A key objective of Government policy is to foster “greater linkage between existing further education, higher education and research sectors, leading to an enhanced overall system with a more complementary range of choices to facilitate learners”.
Despite the nascent nature of the TU sector, the extent of existing co-operation between further and higher education is sometimes underestimated, with many links having arisen organically over the decades.
For example, more than half of the new entrants to technological universities each year through the CAO are not recent school-leavers.
The advent of the technological sector will foster greater links between further and higher education, developing a tertiary landscape with seamless pathways for students Mature students, others returning to education and those progressing from further education are among the groups that contribute to this number.
The advent of the technological sector will foster greater links between further and higher education, developing a tertiary landscape with seamless pathways for students.
A further element is the regional dimension of technological universities.
While each of the technological universities has built strong links with its local education and training boards, there has to date been no consistent formal structures in place to facilitate such co-operation.
Apprenticeships The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021–2025 seeks to ensure that apprenticeships can constitute a much larger part of the education landscape in Ireland.
The technological sector, and especially the five new TUs, are ideally positioned to build upon established links with further education and with the ETBI structure along with our close ties to enterprise to realise the “single system” and deliver on the ambitions within the apprenticeship plan.
[ University or technological university – what’s in a name?
] The potential inherent in this depends on there being sufficient physical and lecturer capability within the technological universities to deliver on the increased numbers of craft and new-generation apprentices.
Will technological universities offer quality postgraduate options?
Continuing access to internationally renowned postgraduate research scholarships and increasing the number of postgraduate research students in their student body is a legislative requirement for TUs and candidate TUs.
They are required to have a certain percentage of research students and must almost double this percentage within 10 years of establishment.
To assist the TUs in reaching this metric, the Irish Research Council (IRC) was allocated supplementary funding of approximately €3.2 million in 2021 and again in 2022 to allocate an additional number of their prestigious Government of Ireland postgraduate research scholarships to the technological university sector.
The funding allowed the council to allocate competitively 29 additional scholarships, improving the sector’s overall success rate in securing IRC scholarships from 7.5 per cent to 24 per cent.
This investment will have a strong impact on the sector reaching the legislative targets, thereby enhancing postgraduate research capacity in the technological university sector.
Why have TUs moved so rapidly towards Level 8 programmes?
Since 1991, the technological third-level sector has been gradually integrated into the higher education system through the CAO application process, and by 2023 has become in many ways indistinguishable from traditional universities.
Originally offering a balanced mix of certificate and diploma courses, with a minority of Level 8 honours degrees, these institutions have progressively abandoned their Level 6/7 programmes to offer mainly programmes at the higher level.
In 1991, institutes of technology introduced 30 new Level 8 degrees to the 120 already offered by the traditional universities, plus 233 level 6/7 programmes.
In the current 2023 application season, there are 1,181 Level 8 programmes on offer, a growth of more than 750 per cent since 1991, whereas the number of Level 6/7 programmes stands at 416, a fraction of the growth of the numbers on offer when the ITs joined the system.
[ Technological universities to build on strengths of sector ] In moving rapidly into the space which had previously been the exclusive preserve of the university sector, the ITs were responding to the expectations of both parents and young people for Level 8 higher degrees.
From the traditional universities’ perspective, there is a nervousness that the pot of funding for fourth-level research, which to date they regarded as their exclusive preserve, will now be spread across all the universities The technological sector has also progressively moved into the area of master’s offerings, moving them in their own eyes on to an equal footing with the traditional research universities.
Where now for our technological universities?
But what of the five new technological universities operating across wide geographic distances within their regions?
How will they meet the challenges set out for them in their founding documents?
Will they be able to create genuinely integrated institutions benefiting from the economies of scale their enhanced size and resources offer, while operating across significant distances between their various campuses?
From the traditional universities’ perspective, there is a nervousness that the pot of funding for fourth-level research, which to date they regarded as their exclusive preserve, will now be spread across all the universities, thus weakening their position in the hugely important international university rankings published annually.
These rankings determine the decisions of potential students in the lucrative worldwide international fees market, on which all universities depend for a considerable amount of their revenues.
Keeping the focus on the active learner It is clearly evident that the rebirth of our institutes of technology as technological universities will further increase their prestige in the eyes of both parents and potential students by the addition of the word university to their title.
Their key challenge will be to serve those who learn most effectively through an active “hands-on” engagement with the knowledge and skills of the various disciplines on offer while enhancing their university credentials.
As all proponents of change theory will affirm, meaningful change is extremely difficult to embed in any person or institution.
How many new year’s resolutions survive contact with our existing life practices?
[ CAO 2023: Ireland’s top colleges lose out to technological universities in overall course applications ] To bring about meaningful change within the new TUs which will manifest itself in real improvements in the quality of what occurs in the interaction between student and academic across the 12 colleges involved in this redesignation will only become evident over a period of years.
Getting the balance right in serving all potential students equally The explosion in the use of online programmes necessitated by the pandemic has transformed how we all communicate with each other, and specifically how academic content is delivered and consumed.
The competency levels of academic staff to operate in this new online world has out of necessity gone through a transition which in pre-pandemic times might have taken 20 years to engineer, but it has been achieved in less than three years.
Will this unforeseen transformation in our modes of communication become the catalyst around which the five new technological universities become stronger in their new incarnation and deliver a world-class quality of education to all potential learners?
It would be a huge step backwards in Irish education if in moving Ireland’s technological colleges into the university category, they adopted the features of the traditional universities and failed to provide a genuinely technological route There will always be competing pressures on technological institutions as they embed their identities as universities and enhance their reputations both domestically and internationally, and they could get pulled away from the vital role they play in supporting the educational journey of the less highly academic student.
We already have a high dropout rate from many programmes offered by existing technological colleges due in part to the market-driven move from Level 6/7 programmes to Level 8.
It would be a huge step backwards in Irish education if in moving Ireland’s technological colleges into the university category, they adopted the features of the traditional universities and failed to provide a genuinely technological route for those students who learn most effectively through a more hands-on engagement with their course content.

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