Comment: Decisive action needed in 2005, institute head warns

16 Feb 2005

Rarely has the Irish third-level education sector come under as much scrutiny as it did in 2004. The OECD Review, the Kelly Report, the Enterprise Strategy Group and the Third-Level Capital Review report all trained their sights on third-level education and how it should be best structured to support the needs of the Irish economy in years to come.

The institutes of technology are a key part of this higher-education fabric. More than 50pc of the third-level students in the country attend the 13 institutes across the country and, given their traditional emphasis on technology, it is safe to assume that their relative importance will only increase as the economy continues its journey towards the research and knowledge-driven era.

For Paul Hannigan, chairman of the Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology and director of Letterkenny IT in Donegal, 2004 was the year in which several of the obstacles facing the sector were finally removed, leaving the way clear for the sector to reach its full potential.

The main objective of the institutes has been to achieve autonomy from the Department of Education and Science. Hannigan believes that the department’s tendency to “micromanage” the institute sector has stunted its development. “If you didn’t have the department looking over your shoulder at every turn, you’d be in a better position to try to move things forward,” he argues. For six years, the institutes have campaigned to be taken out from under the control of the department and instead be designated under the Higher Education Authority (HEA), so putting them on an equal footing with the universities. As Hannigan explains, this finally looks like happening. “The Education Minister [Mary Hanafin, TD] has said that she will make this designation announcement in the Spring of 2005, although we are pressing her department for a specific date.”

The other reason why the institutes have pressed for a new master can be summed up in one word – funding. “If we move on to the same basis for funding as the universities we would get a core grant administered to the college that you could use to decide on how many people to employ and what money you spend on what. It would give us a more definite planning horizon,” Hannigan explains.

The funding concerns of the institutes were acknowledged by the Kelly Report, which recommended that the institutes henceforth receive multi-annual funding. “The recommendations are very important because the way we have operated is that the institutes had to make a submission to the Department of Education every year outlining our programmes and budgets. By the time that process is complete, it’s normally the middle of the year. Until then you don’t know what your budget is. That makes it very difficult,” notes Hannigan.

Although he is pleased to see the move towards multi-annual funding, Hannigan points out that the other funding issue – the extent of it – is just as important. Although he has no quibbles with the Kelly Report, which set out priorities in terms of which institutes’ building projects receive capital funding, Hannigan notes that these increases will need to be accompanied by increases in so-called ‘non-pay’ funding (ie, excluding staffing costs). “The majority of institutes would have a substantial expansion in their capital spending and if the non-pay budget does not take account of the additional demands that that makes on the purse of an institute then it’s obviously going to lead to constraints and cutbacks,” he warns.

Hannigan cites research as another issue of central importance. Here he is less happy with what has been mooted by another prominent report – the report in question this time being the recent OECD Review. “On the basis of our good track record in the applied research area and the recruitment of more specialist staff, a lot more basic research is going on at institute level than before. Some of the recommendations within the recent OECD Review seemed to be saying that the institutes should stick to the applied research area and leave the basic research to the universities. But a lot of the institutes have been involved in collaborative projects with the universities and they want to see those continue. And also when you build up a capability such as that within your staff members they don’t want to be stopped from progressing,” he says, expressing disappointment that the OECD Review did not seem to acknowledge the good work that was being done in that regard.

He feels that to root out some of the research being done within the institutes would be both counterproductive and demoralising for research staff. “There are pockets of strength in research within institutes around the country. For example, despite being one of the smaller institutes Letterkenny IT has recently taken in €2m worth of funding in the areas of electronics and marine biotechnology. For an institute our size that’s big money. What you don’t want is wholly dispersed effort because of the small size of the country. At the same time, if you have expertise within your institute and you want to develop it, there should be mechanisms to do that whether it’s on a collaborative basis or not.”

While issues such as research and funding urgently need to be addressed, Hannigan stresses that the institutes are not standing still in the meantime, particularly in terms of academic development. He points to the cultivation of a rich crop of postgraduate and masters programmes, which have helped attracted mature students back into education and widened access to different groups in society. At the same time, the institutes have been working hard to reverse the recent decline in the number of students taking technology and computer-related courses – an unfortunate consequence of the technology downturn.

Despite the stresses and strains facing the institutes, Hannigan is optimistic about the year ahead and believes that some momentous changes could be close at hand. “At the start of 2004 there were a lot of uncertainties, with several reports yet to be published. We have waited long enough to see some of them appear. The next thing now is to see some of them actioned.”

By Brian Skelly