The process for the establishment of additional universities is provided for in Section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. There are currently 8 universities in the State, the most recent being the establishment of Technological University Dublin under the Technological Universities Act 2018 on 1 January 2019. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 states that there is no case for the establishment of any new universities in Ireland on the basis set out in Section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. The National Strategy also states that smaller, stand-alone institutions such as individual Institutes of Technology (IoTs) lack the scale required to deliver necessary advances in quality and efficiency and recommends consolidation within the IoT sector and a pathway of evolution for consolidated IoTs to allow them to demonstrate significant progress against stated performance criteria and to become multi-campus technological universities (TUs).
Government policy as set out in the Programme for Government is to support the creation of TUs as higher education institutes (HEIs) of sufficient size, capacity and critical mass to have a significant impact at regional, national and international level. These regional HEIs will have greater links to industry and will have an enormous impact on the capacity to create and retain jobs in regions. As such, Government will prioritise those institutions which have clear ambitions and plans for the furthering of industry-relevant technological research and education.
The Government has provided the enabling legislation in the Technological Universities Act 2018 for two or more IoTs to come together to seek TU status. The Technological Universities Act 2018 which was signed into law on 19 March 2018 provides the legal framework underpinning the process for establishment by two or more IoTs as a TU subject to a decision-making process contingent on the meeting of specified eligibility criteria and including assessment by an international advisory panel. The 2018 Act also sets out the functions and governance requirements for these new HEIs. Section 29 of the 2018 Act provides for the application jointly by two or more institutes to the Minister of Education and Skills for an order seeking designation as a TU. Section 38 of the Act provides that an institution and an established TU may also apply to the Minister for such an order.
Government also continues to support those consortia of IoTs seeking to achieve TU status under the legislation in terms of significant Exchequer co-funding, with the latest funding call for a total of €14 million in respect of TU development and other higher education landscape restructuring projects having issued from the Higher Education Authority on 29 March 2019.
The potential benefits of becoming a successful TU are significant in terms of increased reach, international recognition, research capacity building, FDI attraction, skills retention and creation, regional development, enhanced staff and student experience and opportunities and socio-economic progression. The merging of institutes of technology will create institutions of sufficient size, capacity and critical mass to maximise those benefits and attract greater investment.
TUs will be distinguished by a mission and ethos that is aligned and consistent with the current mission and focus of IoTs with an emphasis on programmes at Levels 6 to 8 on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), industry focused research and the development and use of new knowledge through industry-focused research. However, TUs will also offer post-graduate programmes at Levels 9 and 10 on the NFQ.
TUs will help retain talent in the regions by strengthening the offer available to students who will be able to continue to masters and postgraduate level, including PhDs. Larger management and academic teams permitted by the merger of institutions will increase institutional capacity and will facilitate enhanced performance in areas such as winning research funding.
TUs will also be expected to play a pivotal role in facilitating access and progression particularly through relationships with the further education and training sector. The presence of a technological university in a region, with a specific mandate for promoting regional development, will have a transformative effect on local and regional communities. By creating institutions of increased scale and capacity, multi-campus TUs will bring greater social and economic benefits to their regions through a strengthened role in research and innovation and the delivery of a broad range of high quality education and training in each of their campuses.
It is clear from the progress made with existing consortia and from international exemplars that there is very considerable coherence in sectoral and educational offerings that make a single HEI hub both a catalyst and a magnet for regional economic development and employment. The strong regional mission of TUs to support development and innovation is aligned with the objectives of Project Ireland 2040: National Planning Framework. Enhanced HEIs will deliver the skilled and talented people that sustain enterprise and new investments. The National Development Plan 2018 - 2027 cites as a priority the establishment of a clearly prioritised Exchequer-supported higher education building programme including the objective of bolstering the capacity of multi-campus TUs. The current TU development consortia are referenced under Project Ireland 2040 as having a role in deepening the talent pool for distinctive regional clusters and driving research and innovation. TUs will also be well placed to attract increased research funding and to bid for a share of the €4 billion in funding available as part of Project Ireland 2040 over the period 2019 – 2027 under the four broad themes of rural development, urban development, climate action and disruptive technology.
On 1 January 2019 the first TU in the State, Technological University Dublin, which formerly comprised Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Blanchardstown and Institute of Technology Tallaght, was established under the Technological Universities Act 2018. With some 28,000 students, Technological University Dublin became the largest HEI in the State.
On 12 February 2019 the Munster Technological University consortium, comprising Cork IT and IT Tralee, submitted an application to the Minister for Education and Skills seeking TU status under the 2018 Act. The relevant legislative procedures under the Act are in train in relation to the assessment and decision- making process in relation to this application.
There are two other consortia of IoTs currently working to develop TU proposals. These are the Technological University for South East Ireland consortium, comprising Waterford IT and IT Carlow, and the Connacht Ulster Alliance, comprising IT Sligo, Galway Mayo IT and Letterkenny IT. These consortia are understood to be working toward the submission of applications for TU designation under the 2018 Act in 2019 and 2020, respectively, though it is a matter for the relevant consortia to lead on the progression of their plans under the 2018 Act subject to their individual circumstances.
Currently four IoTs - Athlone, Dundalk and Limerick - and the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology - have not joined or formed a consortium seeking to develop TU proposals as is their prerogative as autonomous HEIs.