Devaluing degrees. By Peter McMenamin, retired General Secretary of the TUI

Devaluing degrees. By Peter McMenamin, retired General Secretary of the TUI.

The Technological Universities Bill is motivated by our excellent Institutes  of  Technology wanting spiffier  names

‘‘The distinctive role of the IOT is to take in students onto courses which have a lesser entry requirement and to bring them to an academic level appropriate to their needs and abilities, be that at sub-degree, degree or postgraduate level’

‘The current World University rankings list five of the top tweny universities in the world as not containing the work ‘University’ in their title’

By Peter MacMenamin

The number of Universities needed, the number of places needed in Universities as opposed to in other third-level Institutions, the proportion of the population which should have a university education as opposed to another type of third-level education, either directly on leaving school or at some time later in life. These issues loom over the announcement last May of the intention to establish three new “Technological Universities” and  the more recent publication (January 2014) of the Heads of the Bill to establish these Institutions.

Nothing in the announcement or in the published Heads of the Bill gives any indication that there will be an overall growth in the number of third-level places. It is another debate as to whether such an increase is necessary.  It is clear however that the trend is to provide more “University Graduates” than heretofore. Why do they need to be university graduates as opposed to graduates from other types of higher education institutions?  The Technological University concept as announced seems to consist of little more than Institutes of Technology (IOTs) merging and being given a new status or maybe just a new name.

At present there are seven Universities, fourteen Institutes of Technology, five specialist teacher training colleges and a range of other institutions providing higher education in the public sector under the jurisdiction in some manner of the Minister for Education and Skills. There is also a plethora of institutions in the private sector, operating on a for-profit basis where shareholder benefit is at least a dominant factor (some would say the overriding factor).

A University is a Higher Education Institution (HEI) which focuses on producing graduates at primary-degree  and postgraduate levels and on independent/academic research frequently for its own sake though increasingly for industry.  An Institute of Technology (IOT) is a HEI which produces graduates sub-degree, primary and postgraduate levels. IOTs support research both at student level and by academic staff and while fewer in quantity than the Universities some of the research units in IOTs are at a very high level and highly regarded.  This is generally “Applied Research” and frequently funded by industry or with targeted grants.

While the University typically has as its basic unit of currency the primary Degree (BA, BSc, B Comm. etc), the IOT has traditionally produced graduates with a range of non-degree level qualifications.  Formerly these were National Certificates, National Diplomas, apprenticeship trade qualifications and qualifications in the tourism/hospitality area.   These are now classified in accordance with their place on the National Qualifications grid ranging from levels  6 to 10. Academic qualifications are categorised from 1 to 10 in accordance with the qualifications framework as set out by the National Qualifications Authority.  1 to 5 are regarded as first and second level, 6 to 10 are considered as Higher Education; 6 being sub-degree, 7 pass degree, 8 honours degree, 9 masters and 10 is PhD.


Included in this provision is the vast range of qualifications in the building trade, the engineering trades, technician qualifications, the arts, the catering and hospitality and tourism trades, and others of enormous importance to our economy such as the necessary graduates for the electronic, IT and medical/pharmaceutical industries.

Both IOTs and Universities enjoy a measure of autonomy; universities are believed to have more, though the strictures of budgets and employment control frameworks curtail this considerably for both. They both also enjoy that undefined concept of academic freedom so essential in a democratic society, by statute in the case of universities.

Universities and IOTs do have distinctive roles and must complement one another. The distinctive role of the IOT is to take in students onto courses which have a lesser entry requirement and to bring the student to an academic level appropriate to their needs and abilities, be that at sub-degree, degree or postgraduate level.

It is a given that every educationalist would wish to see every student have access to the highest level of academic achievement that s/he is capable of and willing to work towards.  Access should be opened up as far as possible without regard to income, wealth, social class, parental occupation, postal address or other irrelevant factors.  That does not mean that every student or indeed every child/young person should reach any stated standard.  Not every student is capable of obtaining a primary degree.  Not every student needs or wants to obtain a primary degree or indeed to participate in third-level education at all.

We should allow and facilitate students to reach their own appropriate level of qualification.  There is a normal distribution of ability levels in society and without artificially pushing target percentages of graduates this normal distribution of abilities will necessarily lead to a range of qualification levels throughout the population based on ability levels and aptitudes.  The aim must be to ensure access to the level most suited to ability of each individual while at the same time retaining the academic value of the qualification.

The present proposal is to merge and to re-grade some Institutes of Technology to “Technological University” status.  I use the term re-grade rather that upgrade because I am not convinced that there is a hierarchy of HEI types. Who says that a University is a better HEI than an IOT?  It produces more graduates to a higher level but does that make it a better institution?

The fact that some IOTs have for twenty years or more been pursuing this goal to become Universities is not in any way convincing. If the IOTs drift upwards, as there is every danger they will with their new titles, they will leave behind the less attractive task of producing the necessary qualified graduates at sub-degree level.  Who then will fill that vacuum?  In the 1990s when the DIT, newly established on a statutory basis, sought University status the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) responded that if the DIT were to move into the university space then the role of the DIT would have to be reallocated. In effect the DIT would have to be reinvented.   There was later a suggestion in the DIT that it would be renamed as the “DIT University”.

The original proposer of the concept of a Technological University is the 2011 Hunt report entitled “National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030”.  This has a somewhat confusing description of a Technological University.  According to Hunt a Technological University:

“will be distinguished from existing universities by a mission and ethos that are faithful to and safeguard the current ethos and mission focus of the institutes of technology.  In addition in a technological university, the fields of learning will be closely related to labour market skill needs with a particular focus on programmes at levels 6 to 8 in science, engineering and technology and including an emphasis on workplace learning”.

This appears to be saying that a Technological University is not within the overall world of universities as we know them and is a form of HEI that differs from a conventional university. What it also clarifies is that Hunt is commending the mission of the IOTs and is saying that this must continue.  This is of huge importance.

IOTs have been among the real success stories in Irish education.  They can enrol a student onto a technician course or provide the educational component of apprenticeship and, depending on the aptitude and interest of the student, provide the progression ladder to the highest level and with a regional focus. Hunt, however, seems to be seeking to limit them by reference to them as levels 6 to 8 institutions.  It is difficult to see how an IOT can both maintain its existing role and ethos, and become a university.

So why is there a need to rebrand an already successful formula: surely it is not just about a name? Some in the IOTs say that the term Insitute of Technology is not understood internationally. The current World University rankings list five of the top tweny universities in the world as not containing the work ‘University’ in their title. This includes the one ranked as world number one, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There seems to be no lack of understanding there.

The IOTs have provided the country with well-qualified graduates at all levels, from PhDs to technicians to apprentices, needed by industry. They have been a positive factor in the industrial development of the country with their focus on industrial needs.  The Heads of the Technological University Bill does make some of this in that it requires Technological Universities to provide programmes at all levels of higher education. However, it seems to make an excessive reference to the higher levels, both in terms of students and of staff qualifications.  This emphasis is worrying.

The balance of graduate type and level is vital. A concern is that, in the drive for re-grading, this balance will be lost. If there is to be a loss it is without doubt that the less attractive courses academically (the sub-degree courses) are the ones that will suffer.  This would be disastrous both for the students andDevalu for the development of the country.  We do need well qualified graduates at the appropriate levels and the graduates do need qualifications that employers recognise and have a use for.

However, we do not need a flood of graduates at inappropriate levels. We do not need a flood of students holding qualifications called degrees but which are perhaps seriously devalued from the universally understood meaning of a degree.  I fear that a move towards the concept of Technological University may well be a move which will bring about such a devaluation.  What a horrendous price to pay for a name change.

Peter MacMenamin is the retired General Secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland.