Monday, August 10, 2015
The deep desire amongst all the stakeholders in the South East for University status is understandable. However any objective reading of the Michael Kelly Report to Minister for Education & Skills Jan O’Sullivan on the Engagement and Consultation Process on a Technological University for the South East which was published last week would have to leave one with a bad taste in their mouth. We shouldn’t be surprised I suppose, when a report commissioned by the Government, carried out by a Government insider, says what the Government wanted it to say. I know, shocker. If there’s one thing the report has confirmed it’s that it would have been, in fact the correct course of action last year for WIT not to engage with the Kelly report on the basis that the Terms of Reference were too limiting and did not allow Mr Kelly to even consider any other option than the Waterford Carlow merger.
Many people ask why can Waterford not just apply for ‘traditional’ University status and that’s a good question. Indeed it is fundamental to this entire process. In theory it could. The 1997 Act remains on the statute books and section 9 of that act allows for an application to become a University to proceed. However the follow through on implementing that application is a political decision. And there is no political will – not just in this government, but in any government – to progress any application. So we are sure that it would lie on a shelf somewhere – untested by an International panel. We know this because, in fact, the application that WIT made a decade ago in 2005 under this very Act already suffered this fate. No party has indicated any intention to deviate from the current policy of ‘we have too many universities’. The traditional Universities themselves have not and will not merge and so the IoT sector has been targeted for rationalisation with Technological University status as the carrot. And so we have arrived at a point whereby unless there is a merger, there cannot be an application for TU status.
This is a problem because as of right now – even with several applications being progressed – nobody in Ireland knows exactly what a Technological University is. We know what a University is. We know what an Institute of Technology is. We know how they are funded (or not, as the case may be) for research, teaching and learning and how autonomous (or not) they are. As of right now, based on all Government commentary to date, Technological Universities are to be funded on the same basis as IT’s with no more autonomy and no more funding and no baseline research funding for example, than heretofore.
We need to ask ourselves: what is on offer here with the Technological University? Increasingly the concern is that the answer is nothing other than re-branding and rationalisation. It appears that the Technological University process is to the Institutes of Technology what the IT process was to the Regional Technical Colleges. A re-branding, with one for everyone in the audience at the end of which Waterford will have not ‘caught up’ at all with the educational provision available in other Irish cities and Gateways. But various politicians will certainly go around clapping themselves on the backs and telling anyone who will believe them (including us) that we are now sorted. But we will not be sorted. Our young people will still head to Cork or Dublin or other ‘University Cities’. The question of ‘What is a Technological University’ and what extra will it offer has NOT been answered.
As a member of the WIT Governing Body since 1999 until last March I am aware of all of the recent history of the college and of the timelines and processes involved in the TU application to date.
I have some fundamental concerns about the report itself both its tone and in its content and timelines which appears to contain some inaccuracies. Firstly, I do not recall any contact between WIT and ITC prior to the publication of the Programme for Government in 2011. Indeed the Waterford/ Carlow alliance specifically was a construct of the coalition government and the Institutes were not consulted on the matter in advance. This forced construct runs contrary to other TU applications where the institutes in question were allowed to select their own partner or partners. In fact some of these alliances have seen partners come and go for various reasons. So much for autonomy and academic freedom!
Furthermore, my recollection is that WIT cooperated fully with the Baker Tilly due diligence initiated by Carlow - despite the fact that ITC went to tender with this process with no prior notice to Waterford.
Thirdly when WIT signalled its intention to engage an international academic (Professor John Taylor), it was to test if the proposed partnership was capable of realizing the CRITERIA for TU designation in a reasonable time frame. I cannot understand why Mr Kelly would find this unusual. It seems a rather reasonable question one would have thought.
My final issue is that the overall thrust of Mr Kelly’s historical timeline appears to only point the finger at Waterford for the breakdown in the TUSE process. This is incorrect. The Kelly report fails to capture that WIT entered into the process (including the merger) with gusto. He fails to acknowledge that WIT worked diligently to push forward with Stage 2 while becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. There is no doubt that Professor Taylor’s report raised significant concerns in WIT regarding the overall merger. Indeed Professor Taylor confirmed the contents of his report in person to the Governing Body at a special meeting. But it was also Carlow’s decision to publish un-agreed press statements that led to WIT finally pulling the plug on what was already a fatally wounded process and seeking an urgent meeting with the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education & Skills. This, in my opinion, was the only honest approach to take at that stage.
On to Mr Kelly’s conclusion that the two colleges should now re-enter talks (about talks) and his claim that the entire issue could be put to bed in three years. I have to ask the question: on what is this conclusion based? There is absolutely no data contained in the report to back up this assertion. None. (This, despite the fact that the DIT application which Mr Kelly Chairs has already taken longer than this – even with all the players ‘on board’!?)
There is a continuous lamentation by Mr Kelly throughout his report that no aggregate data was available. However I must ask – was the data not available separately from each college for him to aggregate or indeed from the Higher Education Authority itself who must surely have it at the push of a Management ICT systems button?
The Taylor Report which was withdrawn (or suppressed depending on your point of view) was compiling that data and coming to some not very comforting conclusions for the government and their merger plans. So let us see and agree the data to back up Mr Kelly’s claim. Otherwise it cannot be given any credibility. Mr Kelly seems not to understand the standard of research staff and research programmes required in a truly internationally competitive university as opposed to some ‘me-too’ university. This is clear by his treatment of research activity in his report.
Another glaring and very questionable omission from the report is that it fails to set the merger proposal in an international context. It references no views, no evidence based rationale, no international research or best practice on higher education mergers. If that information is available surely it should have been included? If not, that perhaps, that tells its own tale.
The entire University aspiration rightly beloved of Waterford was to achieve one thing and one thing only. Equality. Equality for the people of Waterford and the South East who have suffered decades of educational apartheid. Equality of access to education for our young people and for the wider population, to address the deficits in the City and the Region detailed so clearly in Chapter 2 of Mr Kelly’s report, by allowing more access to the highest level of education on our doorstep.
This in turn would enable us to better compete in attracting and developing industry and enterprise to our city and the region. It would allow us to address the consequent inequalities in employment levels and earning capacity and to discontinue our history whereby - through no fault of our own, but through the continued propagation of inequality by every government this state has ever had - we did not have a level playing field with our competitor cities.
I seriously question whether what is now on offer will address that or will it still leave us a step behind the University Cities with what they can offer and how they can compete?
I have one final question: what, now, is the South East? Where is it defined? I am at a loss to understand where the government insistence that Waterford may only partner with Carlow and may not address any other prospective partners comes from. At a loss that is until I consider politics and local politics in particular. I consider that this entire process is based on the (then and now) Ministers in our neighbouring constituencies wishing to cannibalise a piece of what we have built here in Waterford for their own back yards. The irony is of course, that WIT had always committed to the region and to spreading the benefits of University status into the region. A stance confirmed in our application for University status way back in 2005. There can be no doubt but that if that application had been allowed to proceed and had been successful, the entire South East would today be in a far stronger position than that which it currently occupies. Kilkenny & Wexford would have their University campuses already. Think about that.
Even more ironic then, that this government has now dismantled the South East Region. It does not exist in any guise, anywhere, any more. The South East hospitals grouping has been broken up and Waterford is in the Southern Group with Cork and Kerry, while Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford have been put into Leinster/Dublin groupings. The South East Regional Authority has also been disbanded.
The South East now is just a figment of Minister Howlin’s imagination when it suits his purposes. Perhaps Waterford and Carlow too should be released of the South East shackles and be free to court other partners in the Governments own redefined regions?
That’s if the entire Technological University process hasn’t already run into the sand...