Sources in the Higher Education Authority (HEA) have confirmed reports circulating that the process of setting up a technological university in the southeast, and potentially in other regions, is gathering pace.
Just last week, the HEA agreed on new rules around the setting up of technological universities in Ireland. And the Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn is set to agree upon these rules in the near future. There are 14 institutes of technology (ITs).
In line with the European Commission’s plan to create an ‘Innovation Union’ as part of its Europe 2020 strategy, the proposal to transform the ITs into more regional hotbeds of technological innovation – engaging with industry, spinning out companies based on applied research and sharing knowledge capital – appears to be on the cards.
The high-level strategy group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt brought out the Hunt Report early last year, looking at a national strategy for higher education for Ireland up to 2030. Part of the report evaluated the future evolution of the ITs and the universities.
It looked at the benefits of a regional cluster approach for such institutions. The Hunt Report pointed to how "consolidation should be promoted to create amalgamated institutes of technology" that would participate in "regional clusters with partner universities of a similar scale".
“However, there may be a case for facilitating the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities," indicated the Hunt report at the time.
Munster and BMW regions – technological university plans
In the past few weeks, ITs in two regions have unleashed their plans to create technological universities. At the end of January, the presidents of the ITs in Limerick, Tralee and Cork announced their plans to create a Munster Technological University (MTU), with the aim of strengthening the region’s educational prowess and enhancing links with local industry.
The IT heads said the MTU would have campuses in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare and Tipperary and an initial enrolment of more than 24,000 students.
At the time, Dr Maria Hinfelaar, president, LIT, said that since the Hunt report came out last year, the ITs have been forced to rethink how they would view themselves in the new landscape and to reposition themselves.
For the Munster region, the three presidents sought out international advice before proceeding with their MTU plans.
"Prof Simon Marginson, an Australian expert on higher education, played a major role, while Prof Robin Smyth from the UK also gave advice. He had experience of when the polytechnics in the UK were converted into universities," said Hinfelaar, who is also chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland (IOTI) this year.
"When you think of the 14 institutes of technology in Ireland, including DIT, and the aim to consolidate them down to four, it’s about increasing the pathways for students to receive higher education and to manage and use resources better," she said.
In terms of the border, midlands and west (BMW) region, in January the five ITs located there also set out their plans to create a technological university in the region. The ITs involved in the BMW Technological University plan are Athlone Institute of Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology, Sligo.
The steering group said in January that such a university would be the largest higher-education institution of its kind in the State, with the capacity to take in up to 27,000 students.
For a long time, Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology had been campaigning to pursue a technological university for the southeast.