The crucial skills question was at the centre of the discussion yesterday when Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology met with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD and Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin TD.
Although individual institutes have met the Toaiseach in the past, the meeting is understood to have been the first formal meeting between the Taoiseach and the institutes as a whole.
In an interview with siliconrepublic.com, Dr Tom Collins, chairman of the council, described the meeting as “jointly initiated” and said the Taoiseach wanted to focus on the role the institutes could play both in terms of addressing skills shortages and supporting the indigenous entrepreneurial sector. The institutes responded by outlining their strategy for a new regional industrial policy and identifying key steps to push Ireland forward into the knowledge economy.
The institues tabled three proposals yesterday. The first was to establish a Technology Innovation Fund that would be driven by the needs of industry. The fund would amount to between €90m and €100m over three to four years and would be managed by a combination of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Enterprise Ireland (EI), industry partners and possibly IDA Ireland. “One thing we’re keen to do is differentiate this fund from other research funds operated within the higher-education sector. We want it to have a definite industry involvement in shaping its identity and managing the allocation of funds,” said Collins, who added the Taoiseach agreed to consider the proposal.
The second idea was the creation of a graduate-conversion system that would help counter the fall-off in applications for science and technology at third level. The idea is that graduates from other disciplines would be now able to undertake a one-year postgraduate course that would enable them to pursue technology careers. As an incentive, the students would receive public subsidies, such as grant aid and subventions on fees and maintenance costs.
Collins estimated that, between them, the institute could put about 1,000 students a year through such a course.
The final proposal was that the government should take account of part-time students in calculating the level of its block grant to the sector each year. The institues argue that the part timers should be given a ‘full-time equivalent’ rating, which would then translate into a certain percentage of the overall grant. “Under the current system there is no incentive for us to develop our Continuous Professional Development strategy,” Collins explained.
Frank Ryan, the CEO of EI, who also attended the meeting, promised that it would work with the institutes to maximise interaction between industry and academia to develop clusters of high-technology companies in the regions and to enhance technology transfer and the commercialisation of research. EI has also identified the need to develop technology centres linked to institutes, focused on working with industry on medium-term research and technology issues and providing improved access to technology solutions.
The Taoiseach acknowledged the contribution institutes had made to economic and social development and specifically highlighted the institutes’ capacity to develop students from all levels of society with different levels of prior achievement.
The Taoiseach and minister also reaffirmed their commitment to bring the institutes under a reformed HEA at the earliest possible date. The heads of bill have been through Cabinet and there is now a target date for the institutes to be designated under the HEA — the 31 October 2005.
The institutes have long been campaigning to be taken out from under the wing of the Department of Education and Collins believed greater autonomy would result from the move. “It will give colleges a greater degree of flexibility in enabling them to respond to local needs. We’ll be able to make decisions as we go instead of having to go back to [the department] for approval each time.”
By Brian Skelly