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Government is failing technological universities. Can they be saved?

Student numbers in newly created third-level institutions have dropped over the past two years. The sector now faces strong headwinds

Enrolments across the five new technological universities (TUs) dropped 9 per cent in the past two years, whereas the eight universities grew 4 per cent.

Indeed, more fine-grained analysis shows that immediately after creation, each TU, in turn, saw a sustained dip in enrolments. Within the sector, if you are not worried, you are not awake.

We are a long way from when the Technological Universities Bill was introduced by then minister for education Jan O’Sullivan “to expand university-level opportunities”, a theme reaffirmed at every opportunity by each of her successors.

TUs’ vital mission in supporting economic, social and cultural development outside of our cities is getting squeezed. TUs are essential to rebalancing the foolish overinvestment in Dublin, which has run at twice the per capita rate for more than a decade, even before Metrolink bleeds the country dry.


With the National Spatial Strategy now fully abandoned in practice, if not yet in Merrion Street’s glossy documents, the neglect of TUs is part of the broader Dublin-first, and Dublin-only approach of contemporary politics. This is leading to swathes of Ireland justifiably feeling left behind, abandoning the traditional parties of Government in search of a political home for their anger.

To those working in the sector, declining numbers – if sustained – present an existential risk. Costs are mostly inflexible payroll costs. A dip in income will quickly tip these new universities into insolvency. The Irish public sector has never grasped the nettle of redundancies, but is long experienced in orderly unwinding and withering, letting time and attrition do their humane work. With a demographic decline due at the end of this decade, and a bumpy start, TUs now face remarkable headwinds. Recognising this, 91 per cent of Teachers’ Union of Ireland members – one of the main staff unions – voted for industrial action over the Government’s failure to deliver.

Part of the problem was the enthusiasm with which Minister Simon Harris sold them. Promising the earth, moon and stars to every hick campus, the Minister raised expectations with his showtime approach to politics. By one sad measure, the TU programme is widely successful. Their origin lies in the 2011 Hunt report, which advocated consolidation of our fragmented higher education system. The past decade has seen the number of publicly-funded higher education institutions drop from 39 to 18. Perhaps the whole TU boondoggle is about managed decline.

The Hunt report addressed system coherence, 50 years after the development of the old regional technical colleges (RTCs). Some thrived and were seeking university status and others struggled. Students vote with the CAO points, picking colleges and courses from a wide, often national, menu. In the 1980s, few students owned cars, boreens and slow trains made commuting impractical, and universities were tiny places that trained priests, solicitors and weirdos too smart for their own good. Over the past 40 years, universities massified into corporate behemoths, fuelled by public money and European Investment Bank borrowing. They reshaped their curriculums to compete with the old RTCs and Institutes of technology (IoTs), offering formerly vocational programmes as degrees in everything from nursing and accounting to computer science, as well as – once unthinkable – work placements and access courses. Motorways and purpose-built student accommodation sucked in Leaving Certificates youngsters from ever-wider hinterlands. The TU mergers have hidden the decline of some IoTs and stalled the progress of the troublesomely ambitious, near-university level IoTs.

Exacerbating that trend has been our parochial Cabinet’s approach to capital investment. TU Dublin is rolling out a €1 billion mega-campus; MTU Cork spent more than half a billion on new buildings in the past 20 years; while the rest of the sector has received little more than a lick of paint. Indeed, the general upward progress in new courses and disciplines stalled 20 years ago – broadly no new areas have developed since architecture and arts degrees were approved in 2005.

The universities, with deep tentacles into our politics, went to war to stall the upward momentum of the IoTs. They found an open door, as the entire sector was more a creation of OECD reports and World Bank money, supported by EU cohesion funding; it was never a cherished part of the Irish public sector. When EU funding dried up, the State never properly stepped in to support the sector. More emblematically, no deep study recommended the whole TU project. The one serious effort to look at system funding, the Cassells report, morphed into piecemeal funding increases.

The new TU presidents, lured into the jobs with the promise of transformation, have found themselves managing prickly and underfunded mergers. The promised transformation agenda of new programmes and disciplines, particularly in pharmacy, veterinary, medicine and teacher training, new capital programmes, a new funding framework, new lecturer contracts, a borrowing framework and student accommodation programme, appears to be stalled.

With each of the eight universities currently spending €200-300 million on their five-year capital programmes, the TU sector is still waiting for its game-changing future to arrive; the sector is still soaked in austerity.

This Government has tried announcing “mission accomplished” on the TU agenda, all without following through on the promises they have made. With the decline in enrolments, there is always the risk that the next Government cuts back on the TU agenda, resets policy and completes the Hunt’s report logic of consolidation and orderly withering of the sector.

Dr Ray Griffin is a senior lecturer in management and organisation at South East Technological University