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In creating new technological universities, did we make a mistake?

With considerable fanfare, Ireland merged 11 of its 13 institutes of technology (IoTs) into five technological universities (TUs) with the idea of creating fewer, but stronger institutions, tied to employment and practical research.

Now, the country has 13 universities, with little differentiation between the five new TUs and the eight traditional universities (one of which is private). What Ireland has done, in common with the United Kingdom (1992), was to abolish the “binary system” of higher education. At the same time, it is creating a transition from a hierarchical division between higher education and technical and vocational education and training/further education and training (TVET/FET) into one unitary tertiary education system.

The reasoning behind the merger of the IoTs into TUs — to merge small, often under-resourced and weak institutions into stronger and more coherent universities — was sound and at the same time raised their status and attractiveness to students. These new TUs have a different focus than the traditional universities. They are more strongly related to their regions and economies, and as such they are more similar to universities of applied sciences elsewhere in Europe.

We also see that traditional research universities have increasingly taken a more active role in professional and vocational training and applied research

But by abolishing the binary system and giving TUs university status, serious challenges are to be anticipated. Our argument is that Ireland’s higher education institutions need to be clearly differentiated by mission and purpose — not lumped together with similar goals. We agree that there need to be more interrelationships in the tertiary sector, with more flexibility and transparency. We also see that traditional research universities have increasingly taken a more active role in professional and vocational training and applied research. And we share the concern that the divide between research universities, universities of applied sciences, and the TVET/FET sector is too rigid and no longer preparing students for future skills.

The new TUs can offer doctoral degrees and have a research mission, similar to the traditional universities. This is a major error — but there is still time to correct it by ensuring that the TUs have a clearly defined mission that focuses on teaching, links with industry, and carefully applied research only as a minor focus. They should be tasked with work-force related goals and with developing industrial and professional doctorates, an emerging trend elsewhere. Otherwise, the TU sector will drain resources and inevitably fail to compete with the traditional universities. In a small country like Ireland, there is no space, or funding, for 13 successful research universities.

One can look overseas for a few success stories and many failures. Broadly following the 1960 California master plan, most American states have developed three-tier public higher education systems with open access and largely vocational community colleges, a state university system linked to local economies and largely forbidden to offer traditional doctoral degrees, and the world-renowned University of California system. Students have the ability to transfer among the different tiers. While not without its problems, this model has been largely successful.

We agree with the criticism that the binary higher education system is too rigid, and support a tertiary system that is broader in access

Although the context was different than currently in Ireland, in the United Kingdom (no mergers, a more marketised approach to higher education and less stringent criteria laid down in law) we have seen on the contrary that, after the abolition of the binary system, the new universities, with little success, have tried to become research universities and thus neglected their key responsibility toward their local communities and industries. We see similar developments in Scandinavia, especially in Norway, and elsewhere in Europe, where universities of applied sciences also try to cross the binary boundaries, unsuccessfully emulating better-funded, traditional research universities.

We agree with the criticism that the binary higher education system is too rigid, and support a tertiary system that is broader in access, provides pathways and life-long learning, and addresses the needs of local communities and regions, among others.

However, we do not think that abolishing the binary system will automatically create a more flexible, inclusive, and innovative tertiary education system. In that respect, it is illustrative that the TUs are partners of universities of applied sciences in the European University Initiative, while the traditional universities partner with their research counterparts. More diverse and differentiated tertiary systems have proven to be more successful than more homogeneous systems.

We think that this is true for the national context of Ireland as well as in Europe and beyond.

  • Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit are professors emeriti and distinguished fellows at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. Earlier this year they were involved in a week’s summer residency of the higher education EdD programme of Boston College in Dublin.

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