The increasing participation in higher education has been a defining feature of recent decades in Ireland. In the mid- 1960s, only about 5% of the Leaving Certificate cohort went to university or other third-level college. Today, more than two thirds of the cohort go on to higher education. So, from being a marginal, albeit elite, option up to the 1960s, higher education participation has now become the norm for school leavers and the phenomenon of higher education has emerged as a key national policy domain.
The regional technical colleges, first established in the early 1970s with World Bank support, emerged as a key plank of national policy in extending higher education access. As is often the case with public policy in Ireland, new departures can get ambivalent receptions from their creators and be embraced with a certain reluctance by the policy makers. As such, they were established as sub-degree providers within the then VEC structures.
"Ultimately, the Hunt Report of 2011, which set out a national strategy for higher education to 2030, would acknowledge the evolution of the sector by proposing the establishment of a number of technological universities in Ireland through the coalescence of various IOTs."
Over time, it is probably true to say that the RTCs had been on a gradual trajectory of development which meant they grew to look increasingly like universities. In the 1990s, the RTCs came to be elevated to institutes of technology. These would ultimately gain delegated degree awarding powers. A wider academic programme, which included areas like social care, health, sport and nursing, was introduced to supplement the traditional science, engineering and business disciplines. The research agenda would grow and the regulatory structure would move from the Department of Education to the HEA.
Ultimately, the Hunt Report of 2011, which set out a national strategy for higher education to 2030, would acknowledge the evolution of the sector by proposing the establishment of a number of technological universities in Ireland through the coalescence of various IOTs. The Technological Universities Act (2018) provided the enabling legislation for this next evolutionary stage and set down the criteria for designation as a TU.
TU Dublin, formed from DIT, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown, was the country’s first TU. The decision to designate it was announced in July 2018, just four months after the passage of the legislation through the houses of the Oireachtas and three months after the submission of the application for designation. The new unitary institution became a legal entity on 1 January 2019. On 1 January 2021, it is intended that the Munster Technological University will come into being. It is envisaged that the AIT - LIT Consortium will be the third such university to come into existence on 1 September 2021.
Transformational organisation change of the scale necessary to make a successful application as a TU involves winning the minds and hearts of all concerned. To be successful it must be a coalition not only of the willing but of the enthusiastic. Staff in particular must experience the process as inclusive, engaged and transparent where they are involved not only by knowing what is underway but in shaping what is underway. Students must also be involved and consulted.
In this process in AIT – LIT, a comprehensive structure for staff and student input has been developed and an ongoing communication process has been rolled out. This has included the establishment of two joint staff steering groups - the Academic Steering Group and the Professional Services Steering Group, two IR fora involving the TUI and the Professional Management and Services Unions from both institutions, multiple joint working groups and an online staff survey conducted in May and June last. A similar survey was conducted with students. All of this activity was conducted in the middle of a pandemic in which almost all of the many meetings were conducted remotely, and during which staff had many other issues and challenges to deal with.
On the adage that there is never enough communication, this website will keep staff, students and external stakeholders updated on all aspects of the process as it unfolds, particularly as we approach the point of making the application for designation.
Professor Tom Collins
Project Facilitator, AIT – LIT Consortium