Friday marked the last teaching day of the semester at WIT and it also marked the last day of our college as an Institute of Technology. Today sees the first working day of the college as a constituent college of a new entity, the South East Technological University.
There has been plenty of talk in the media about the wisdom (or not) of the upgrading of the Institutes of Technology in Ireland to the status of Technological Universities. I’m not sure I have anything to add to this, except to say that my understanding of the term Technological University is that it will allow the college to continue to offer Certificates and Diplomas in practical subjects, and courses in trades, as well as the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of a traditional university. I should also say that, as a blown-in from Dublin, it is easy to understand the desire of citizens of Waterford and the region to have a university in the region. There is a marked flight of students from the southeast to universities in the larger cities, never to return, a brain-drain that is compounded by the difficulties in attracting industry to a region. From that perspective, the designation of university status can only be a good thing.
When I first arrived at Waterford Regional Technical College in 1996, there was much talk of the college being upgraded, following the upgrade of NIHE Limerick and NIHE Dublin to university status, as WRTC had a good reputation for its degrees in science, business and computing as well as unusually high research activity (for an RTC). Sure enough, after several external reviews and a lengthy process, the college was redesignated an Institute of Technology, a new entity on the educational landscape in Ireland. This was seen as important recognition for the college at the time; however, within a year, all the RTCs had been similarly upgraded (not least because it became an election issue for politicians in each region).
Something similar transpired at the next stage. Over the next few years, WIT underwent innumerable external reviews, almost all of which recommended that it should be granted full university status. However, the idea did not receive a warm welcome at the HEA, which decided instead to amalgamate various IoTs and redesignate them technological universities. Ironically, Waterford (now amalgamated with IT Carlow as the South East Technological University), was one of the last of these upgrades, although it was almost certainly responsible for kick-starting the process.
Overall, I think the new designation is probably a positive thing. It is undoubtedly true that having a local university will make it easier to attract industry to the region, and help to slow the brain-drain of young people to the larger cities. My main concern is that there has been very little information from the HEA on the nuts and bolts of the change, notably on how the change will impact staff contracts. For example, staff on the standard Lecturer grade in the IoTs are currently contracted to be in class 16 hours a week (this typically means teaching 4 different modules). This teaching load is perfectly acceptable for a teaching college, but is far above the norm for universities where staff are expected to be active in research. Indeed, the difficulty in carrying out meaningful research on top of a heavy teaching load has long been a problem in the IoT sector; hopefully the new designation will see some improvement in this area.