ISC calls for more R&D at Institutes of Technology

10 Dec 2003

Information Society Commission chairman Danny O’Hare has called for Institutes of Technology to have R&D operations established adjacent to campuses and part-funded by the PRTLI and private industry. He has also called for the Institutes to be given greater autonomy in managing their own futures.

As chairman of the ISC, it is O’Hare’s job is to advise the Taoiseach and the Government about the correct policies to adopt in relation to Ireland’s development as a technology- and knowledge-centric nation. He is also one of the country’s most prominent academics, in the past heading up both Letterkenny and Waterford Regional Technical Colleges (now institutes of technology), before taking up the reins as founding president of Dublin City University and running it between 1977 and 1999.

In an interview with O’Hare called for the creation of R&D institutions adjacent to the various Institutes of Technology that would have the dual purpose of commercialising college research and freeing up college-based academics’ time to focus better on fostering research.

“There are some academics within the Institutes that have been very active in research and have spawned some leading research companies from the campus. A good example of this is some of the good R&D work being done at Carlow Institute of Technology. The dilemma, however, is how do the Institutes of Technology support the research activity of a small number of academics inside an institution that is primarily a teaching institution? As well as additional lab space and equipment, academics are under pressure to find the time to devote to research and juggle this with their teaching responsibilities.

“I have been active in promoting the idea of a research centre beside each Institute of Technology campus, that would be owned in part by the Institute as well as IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland as well as sponsorship from private industry. Research-active academics that want to develop could move to that research centre. The research centre in return could compensate the Institute for the time of the acrademic researcher who could spend five hours a day in the labs, which in turn would pay for the recruitment of substitute lecturers and result in the creation of a new food chain.

“One of the issues that institutes face is that in order to allow a small number of staff to do the research, they would have to have their teaching hours reduced and this has caused considerable resistance from the unions. This is where R&D and the time spent developing revenue-generating research could compensate the Institutes.”

O’Hare suggested that investment from the recently restored Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) as well as support from the various development agencies, private industry and the EU could help establish the various research centres that over time would become self-sustaining.

As well as calling for the creation of R&D Centres at the various Institutes of Technology, O’Hare has reiterated his call for greater autonomy for the Institutes and has been vehement that they do not become fully-fledged universities. “Essentially what is called for is known in academic circles as ‘parity of esteem’, whereby both the Institutes and the universities represent equally valid aspects of higher education and have the same value in the eyes of students, industry and government that universities currently enjoy. It forces institutes to ‘seek respectability’ but without the need to become fully fledged universities. It would be a negative if they did become universities as it would take diversity out of the education system.

“The key thing is for both Institutes of Technology and universities are equally regarded. One thing that does hinder the Institutes is the lack of freedom they have to manage their own affairs. Universities and the Institutes of Technology should have equal freedoms to manage their own affairs,” O’Hare said.

However, there is a danger in how the situation can be approached. “With a stroke of a pen the UK Government transformed regional polytechnics into universities and as a result has taken the diversity out of the education system there. As well as that across the world, governments have established linkages between universities and regional technology colleges, which results in the universities eventually dominating affairs. This must not happen in Ireland. What is needed is for the Institutes of Technology to enjoy the same financial and managerial freedoms that their university cousins currently enjoy,” O’Hare said.

By John Kennedy