On the early evening news last night, the Taoiseach, Dr. Leo Varadkar said that this was a red-letter day for third level education. I chose not to watch the late evening news and I assume they did not rerecord this little soundbite, so he likely uttered the same thing again on the later news bulletin. There were some other wisdoms of questionable meaning and intent in the remainder of his commentary as he presided over the announcement of the brand new Technological University of Dublin, (at least the people there have had the good sense to change the title from TU4D).
So what can we learn from this new Government initiative. The first lesson is that this was not a red-letter day, in fact it is far from it. On a basic level this is clear to all as the leaked announcement in the Irish papers earlier this week merited only the equivalent of 5 to 6 column inches and the item got approximately 2 minutes on the RTE Six O'Clock News yesterday and that snippet, only after the advert break and the other news of Brexit, Trump, Ryanair strikes, contractors reclaiming their goods from unfinished second level schools and lava falling on a boat in some distant location I fail to remember. To gauge the importance of this 'red letter day' event you do have to ask yourself, if TCD, UCD and DCU were merging to form a new university of any kind, would they not expect much more of a performance from the media (and pardon my slang) than 6 inches and a 2-minute quickie. I think we can be sure that our national media mostly consider this a non-event. It is interesting to observe that the senior members of the established universities are reportedly concerned about this new departure; but not in the way you might be concerned about competition. They are concerned that the Technological Universities will lower the tone. The universities have been reported as indicating that the standard set for a Technological University does not do justice to the notion of a university.
The second lesson is that this process of proclaiming a new technological university is nothing more than a rebranding of three Institutes of Technology, one of which DIT was a pseudo University in all but name, the other two are probably less capable of ever becoming a Technological University without DIT as they most likely would not meet the metrics for designation. This will be replicated around the country as the other consortia bid for second place in the designation race. It is clear and has been for some time that this is primarily a process of rationalisation. It will result in a reduction in the number of programmes on offer at 3rd level (despite what Institutes may say). It will surely weaken the role of the IOTs nationally (there is no government strategy in place to strengthen them that we are been made aware of). It will lead to a total reduction in the number of staff in the short to medium term as viability issues emerge and programmes are culled. It is intended only to reduce the cost of education/student through increased class sizes (this will occur through elimination of duplicated programmes and merging of offerings). Anyone who says, or believes different is either grossly mistaken, is being duplicitous or is deceiving themselves. This government has failed miserably to do anything to assist any of the 3rd level Institutes or Universities since its inception. They can dress this merger up anyway they like but the sector has seen a well heralded and dramatic fall in public funding and a huge increase in student numbers with no capital investment and no change in government contribution through the Recurrent Grant Allocation Model. There is no viable solution to the student loan/fees/grant system and there is a constant and recurring neoliberal theme in the governments narrative about the future development of institutes and universities as hubs for innovation, employability and regional development.
The third lesson we were offered was about employability. Focus on employability was one of the lines I heard being used to describe the mission of this new Technological University on the News at 6 yesterday. There has always been a focus on employability in these organisations. The graduates of all of them have been gainfully employed for years. In fact, initiatives supporting this 'employability and lifelong learning' were attached to one of the key metrics for designation. Creating valuable graduates who are employable by business at home and abroad is precisely what all three Institutes have been doing for many years. Indeed DIT, has being doing this for quite some time, over 100 years in fact as its mission stems from the Technical Schools of the early 1900s. Data obtained from their website shows that it educates a huge number of apprentices nationally in various phases of their apprenticeships, and of course it graduates thousands of students annually from Level 6 to Level 10 (PhD by Research) in full time and part time modes.
The fourth lesson offered was about how this university would enable access to third level education for those areas of the city that have not normally had access to third level education. This is a red herring. The creation of a new university and the dubious attachment of this university to the role of widening access and participation in 3rd level education is wrong on any regional or social basis. In infers that there are socially or regionally organised strata in society who can or may only access third level education by the establishment of Technological University of Dublin or future such universities dotted regionally. This is clearly not the case as in fact it is not the availability of CAO places or the physical access to third level that is a problem. It is a well-known fact that third level establishments are falling over themselves to accept students. There is clearly a lack of participation in third level from various regions of Dublin city. However, resolution of that problem or establishing it as a strategic objective for resolution by a new Technological University is not correct. It will only perpetuate the notion that there is stratification of access in the sector. That is a problem to be tackled across all levels of education and it can be strongly argued that a decision to attend university is less to do with the university and more to do with the 'feeder school' problem. However, should the government wish to create this as a strategic objective for the new universities then one will expect that they will also fund locally the educational development and supportive access programmes at primary and second level in the localities to make progress a possibility. This must happen if there is a perceived lack of such access to third level and to ensure that the road to hell is not just paved with good intentions.
For people on the outside the creation of the new university may seem to be a done deal. But like all mergers the pains and gains are likely to arise in the post-merger change management process. It will be interesting to see what bounce in demand this new university gets when the Leaving Certificate classes of 2018, 2019 and beyond declare their CAO preferences. Equally it will be interesting to see how this university goes about the process of setting itself up to sort out the inner turmoil that the merger will most likely create. One suspects that civil war will break out internally as the three Institutes engage in what is about to become an unholy war for 'middle earthucation'. So, spare a though for those people on the inside who must live through a process of creating a new university, some of who may have seen the conversion of Colleges of Technology into constituent elements of DIT or for others the conversion of RTCs into IOTs. There is no going back. There is no legislative loop hole for a 'volte face'. Fair winds and following seas is all that we can wish them all.
"There is a curse. They say: May you live in interesting times"