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There are concerns in the sector at falling enrolments in some TUs. Alamy Stock Photo
Another level

TU trouble: Disquiet over 'funding crisis' at technological universities

The merger of the former Institutes of Technology had been a major project of incoming Taoiseach Simon Harris.

MANAGEMENT AND STAFF in Ireland’s recently-formed technological universities have warned that the sector is facing into dangerous headwinds, amid a significant fall in enrolments and major funding struggles.

The Technological Universities were one of the big projects of incoming Taoiseach Simon Harris’ recent years spent as Minister for Further and Higher Education.

It saw Ireland’s 14 institutes of technology merged into five standalone TUs.

However, there are warnings that the new minister – whoever that will be – will need to get to grip with mounting problems. These include:

  • student enrolments down across the sector, reaching into double figures for those most affected;
  • the lack of a government-approved borrowing framework to allow TUs borrow funds to develop new teaching spaces and facilities, similar to longstanding universities;
  • stalled funding for new contracts and new disciplines in the likes of veterinary and pharmacy medicine to help move the TUs to the promised university standing.

The Department of Further and Higher Education downplayed concerns around the sector, telling The Journal that overall higher education enrolment trends may be due to more students choosing honours degrees instead of Ordinary and Certificate courses.

The new TUs include TU Dublin (arising from an amalgamation of Dublin, Blanchardstown and Tallaght ITs), the Technological University of the Shannon (previously Limerick and Athlone ITs) and the South East Technological University (previously Waterford and Carlow ITs).

The others are Munster Technological University (formerly Cork and Tralee ITs) and the northwest’s Atlantic Technological University (an amalgamation of ITs in Letterkenny, Galway-Mayo and Sligo).

Student numbers

On student enrolments, the most significant drops can be seen at South East TU – the number of incoming first years dropped by 10 percent. At TU Dublin, enrolments dropped by six percent. Other TUs saw decreases from 4-5 percent.

Experts have warned of the risks this poses to the sector, with the fall in enrolments at TU Dublin estimated to cost between €10m to €12m.

Concern has been particularly heightened around TU Dublin, which has faced questions over it’s managed a financial deficit of €8.6 million.

Last month, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) expressed serious concern over the “apparent lack of urgency, responsiveness and conduct” by the college’s governing body to address the deficit.

The latest development came last week when President of TU Dublin Professor David FitzPatrick announced his resignation to take up a new position.

Outlining that his decision to leave arose last summer, FitzPatrick said that he is committed to ensuring TUD will have a plan demonstrating “a sound financial footing” before he departs.

According to Ray Griffin, professor in economics at South East Technological University and the author of several reports on economic development, there is a growing fear that turnover of senior management could continue.

He pointed to the difficulties of integrating organisations of this size, whereby campuses in different locations – sometimes over an hour’s drive apart – need to be updated and brought in line with each other.

“Changing the innards of the organisations costs money. That’s from integrating the IT systems, to their exams, offices.

“Government has not resourced the integration, which means it is being done based on existing internal resources.”

Griffin said TU management have tended to be “absorbed by these difficult tasks” rather than focusing on students and growing the college in other ways.

But it has resulted in drawbacks in other ways, leading to unhealthy competition between campuses which were previously the base of rival ITs.

“In the absence of fresh money, there is a winner and loser in almost everything. Unless you’re creating new roles, new resources, what you’re actually doing is, you have to claw resources out of the existing operation to fund the transformation.”

“I don’t know how long these new presidents will stick around doing an undoable job, when they have none of the resources that were promised,” he said.

These resources – the borrowing framework allowing access to finances similar to traditional universities, funding for new buildings, new disciplines and fresh contracts for lecturers permitting further research – were also listed by TU Dublin as challenges.

A spokesperson for TUD told The Journal that there are “several key differences” between it and the longstanding universities, which it said impact the technological sector’s potential for growth.

It said there is an “urgent need” for support to provide new contracts for staff to help them deepen their research – a longstanding feature of its established rivals.

“Technological universities currently lack a government-approved borrowing framework that will enable us to borrow funds for capital developments such as new teaching spaces and sports facilities that are vital to the student experience,” it said.

“The sector also requires a new Academic Contract to enable TUs to appoint professors to level the playing field with ‘traditional’ universities.”

It said promised funding has not happened, resulting in a “gap that remains to be closed, and, unfortunately, costs have increased notably over the past two years”.

Brain drain

Griffin raised concerns about how a lack of investment in infrastructure and resources risk leading to a “brain drain” of students leaving their native regions in Ireland to receive their education elsewhere.

“I work in the school of business at SETU. In 2011 [as Waterford Institute of Technology] we had a €14 million euro building cancelled. In that time Trinity has built a €90 million School of Business. UCC is building a €106 million school at the moment.

“How are we supposed to compete against them? How are we supposed to keep young people in the region, when our €14 million euro building doesn’t get approved?

“This is for the same number of students, the exact same sized business schools. This is why I’m so angry about this.”

The South East Technological University did not respond when contacted with queries last week.

The Department of Further and Higher Education told The Journal that overall higher education enrolment trends “reflect a range of underlying factors”, including availability of opportunities outside higher education and preference for certain course types.

“These factors must be considered carefully in assessing enrolment figures,” it said, adding that courses “most significantly driving this fall” are Certificate courses, and Ordinary degrees.

“This is the continuation of an ongoing pattern of change in which less students are opting to pursue an ordinary degree, and more are opting to pursue an honours degree,” the department said.

Outgoing minister, incoming Taoiseach

As for Simon Harris, who is expected to become Taoiseach early next month, it’s hoped the sector will not be forgotten as he moves to his new role.

“Simon Harris is walking out the door when there have loads of promises and very little actually accomplished. So like the rebranding has happened and the mergers have happened, but actually the integration and the difficult work behind it has not,” Griffin said.

“This is a man who has made promises. He now has the highest office in the land and is incredibly well equipped to deliver on those promises. So it’s in his court.”

Issues around the TU sector are set to be debated at this week’s upcoming Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) annual congress. The union has taken a stance that regional variations in terms of pay and conditions are unacceptable.

In January, union members gave overwhelmingly voted for industrial action over the issue.

The TUI said it would put the issue front and centre at this week’s gathering in Killarney, adding that the sector’s “funding crisis” continues to have a “negative impact, resulting in larger class sizes and less access to laboratories, equipment, materials, libraries and tutorials”.

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