26 January 2010

There's nothing backwards about institutes of technology, Mr Sutherland

Peter Sutherland’s extraordinary sideswipe at institutes of technology (IoTs) last week reveals an understanding of this vibrant sector of Irish higher education that is woefully ill-informed.

Speaking at the launch of the Undergraduate Awards of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mr Sutherland said that he was opposed to the even distribution of resources between top universities and a “Ballygobackwards RTC”. Such linguistic mud-slinging does little to illuminate the richness of Irish tertiary education and is an undisguised insult to the hundreds of thousands of learners who attend and have attended IoTs.

For the record, there is nothing backward about the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes offered by the country’s fourteen institutes of technology; a fact reflected in the fact that in September 2009 more students accepted a college place in IoTs than in universities. Progression rates from second to third level education have increased dramatically over the past two decades, with two-thirds of Leaving Certificate students now choosing to go to college. This is in large part attributable to the premium placed by institutes of technology on offering accessible third-level education founded on favourable staff-student ratios, work placements and a progressive ladder system of qualifications.

There is nothing backward about the initiatives undertaken by the institutes to increase the number of mature students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds accessing third level. In these economically turbulent times, IoTs are playing a crucial role in upskilling the workforce, a task deemed essential to the restoration of the country’s fortunes. In 2008, more than 4,800 new entrants to institutes of technology were classified as mature students or were from the semi- and unskilled manual worker group and non-manual worker group. This was one-fifth greater than the number of comparable new entrants to universities.

Nor indeed is there anything remotely backward about the IoTs’ investment in research and innovation, which has exceeded €273million since 2004. This has helped Ireland’s march towards becoming an innovation island and in its focus on applied research is a powerful boost to indigenous and multinational companies in key target areas such as ICT, biopharma, medical technologies and creative industries. Fourteen incubation centres exist on IoT campuses, providing a support structure for entrepreneurs and high-potential start-up companies.

I would like to invite Mr Sutherland to visit Athlone Institute of Technology – or indeed any other institute campus – so that he can see at first hand the nature of the work undertaken in Ireland’s IoTs. He might be surprised to learn, for example, in Athlone’s case that one-in-ten of our full-time undergraduate students come from outside Ireland, or that we have collaborative agreements with some of the leading research universities in the world, including GeorgiaTech, Bharati Vidyapeeth University in India and the Institute of Software, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Such partnerships give short shrift to any views of IoTs as parochial or insular.

He is correct, however, in stating that Ireland needs “a level of general excellence in education if we are to compete in the modern world”. What Mr Sutherland has failed to realise though is that the diversity of learner and employer needs, demands a higher education system which recognises the complementary contributions of institutes of technology and universities. Both need to be adequately funded and are duly accountable to the tax-payer for how that money is invested. Excellence is not a virtue exclusive to rarefied campuses, the achievements of IoT students, graduates and researchers over four decades are testament to that.

Mr Sutherland may have associated institutes of technology with the negative stereotype of Ballygobackwards, but in truth it is his own remark that belongs in the farcical realm of Ballymagash.

Why another blog about higher education?

Higher education is one of the most crucial sectors of activity in Ireland at present. Its role as a driver of the knowledge economy has been repeatedly highlighted, and the desired upskilling of the work force is dependent upon increasing numbers obtaining higher education qualifications.

Athlone Institute of Technology has a particularly important role to play in the midlands of Ireland. The sole higher education institution in the region, it is not only an important access point to tertiary education for people, but a vibrant collaborator with industry, and a driver of research and innovation activity.

This blog will hopefully highlight some of the work undertaken by the institute, as well as providing a forum to comment on wider matters to do with higher education, and indeed society in general.

Any blog is only as good as the conversation it generates, so in that spirit I hope it is the starting point for many discussions and debates.