Upstarts in the Southeast?

Over Christmas I read Ed Walsh‘s excellent autobiography Upstart. Upstart details the creation of the National Institute of Higher Education, Limerick, which subsequently became the University of Limerick. Given where I work, but also because it’s a fine story, I found it unputdownable. In part Upstart details the political machinations required to get UL university status. I wonder if the Institutes in the Southeast saw an early draft?

Today’s ‘news’ as reported by Sean Flynn that the Minister for Education will announce the creation of a technological university for the Southeast might give the impression it was. Sean Flynn took to Twitter recently to say the Department of Education has denied it is going ahead, but “big wheels in Cabinet want it .it (sic) will happen!

It sounds like there have been a serious discussion ongoing about a new university behind closed doors. Given the state of the State’s finances, and also the sector most of the contributors to this blog work in, as well as the contribution of universities in general to Irish life, I think this news, or leak, or whatever, is worth a thread on this blog.

By Stephen Kinsella

Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Limerick.

30 replies on “Upstarts in the Southeast?”

8 universities is a good number for Ireland (same as Scotland before polytechnic upgrades) and provides good geographic coverage. NUI Maynooth is actually the anomaly, not WIT/south east. This should allow the south east to kick on, just as the mid-west did after the upgrade of UL. There is a cost to allowing 12% of the national population to slide into an abyss, and bizarrely enough, considering the prosperous history of the south east, the region has become worse off even than the BMW region.

Those against should note that the creation of a technological university for the south east will result in one less third level institute, since WIT and IT Carlow will merge. This is actually not particularly sensible from an ‘excellence’ point of view, since WIT is at a higher level than IT Carlow, but should result in savings in the coming years that can be reinvested in the new university in order to bring it on.

As to complaints about lower numbers of a staff with PhDs than the existing 7 universities, it looks as though the new university will be compelled to keep teaching at levels 5-7, which means this is probably more or less as it should be.

What enterprise agency chiefs say on policy should be taken with a pinch of salt and there is no Whitaker among them who will speak out of line.

The argument in a small country that the southeast needs a a university to have the potential to have job creation is just old style parochialism — remember ‘Welcome to Parlon Country’ and the lucky bag decentralisaation plan?

This proposal is a mini-verson of that.

If the argument is that university research is the route to increasing employment, then apart from the locals who want something to brag about without any direct local cost to themselves, the dream is as deluded as the one that Ireland could create the equivalent of one-third of the high-tech jobs in Califirnia’s Silicon Valley in a decade.

This fairytale became official policy even though most of the high tech hopes of the 1990s had either gone bust or had been acquired by US firms including private equity.

About as transiently meaningful as a politician changing his shirt before a funeral. This may be heresy, but really is this of any economic significance?

Ireland has, what, about 63% of leaving certs moving through 3rd level? There are 500K unemployed and the Smart Economy policy has utterly failed. Shouldn’t something more directly relevant to supporting businesses such as a workfare program be in the works?

I was always under the impression that Ireland suffered at the harder end of the sciences due to the comparatively small size of the the departments – are there advantages to either student education or research in this more diverse/fragmented approach?

Regardless of the answer if there was a competition for grandiosity in the naming of Universities we still have ground to catch up on our neighbours in Blighty, I counted 128 Universities to our 7 or about 130% more University per head of population, even with an eighth “University” we would still have a lower academic self importance index.

@ Norman Wyse

“There is a cost to allowing 12% of the national population to slide into an abyss”

The South East might be neglected but for the real abyss you only need to drive a few miles east from UL to Southhill. The cost of redressing 60 years of institutional ineptitude was put at €3bn several years ago.

A question: Has the number attending uni. gone up much since 2008 (one assumes if there are no jobs out there for school leavers then it should have done) and is there a need for more capacity to cope with that?

If a large number did take shelter from the recession by going into uni. since 2008 in the hope of ‘riding it out’ will we start to see them joining the dole queues from this year followed by annual spikes in the unemployment numbers until the situation improves?

Or will they all opt to stay on and do their Masters or maybe even take all that expensive education abroad?

There may be a good case for a university in Waterford, but it’s not clear that WIT should become that university. University lecturers are people who do research and teaching. There are some really good researchers in WIT, but the great majority of the staff are not involved in research at all. If those staff transfer over to the university, there will a huge legacy of non research-active staff.

Switching from an IT to a university might also be bad news for many existing staff. A lot of ITs close during the summer and the staff go on holiday for months at a time. Universities keep working all year. What will all those who are used to months of holiday do when they have to stay in the new university all summer doing research, working with companies, and supervising research students?

A better plan might be to establish a new university in Waterford. Existing IT staff could apply to work there in competition with anyone else seeking an academic job. Initially the university might be very small, but it could grow over time.

The existing IT could be slowly run down with its budget moved to the university as existing staff retire. Or the existing IT could simply be closed and the staff made redundant, and the entire budget moved to the university over a couple of years.

There are a few fashionable ideas doing the rounds these days that appear to have little or not backing but they are spouted continuously nonetheless.

1. Fewer universities would be better. Really? You get economies of scale but you lose competitive and collaborative activity which is very healthy.

2. Universities are mainly about high quality research. Really? This is the most ‘fashionable’ — as in of the day — truism you are likely to hear. Mostly, industry wants good degree graduates, that means good teaching and teachers. There is going to be a big push back against this idea that universities == research.

3. Upgrading WIT/IT Carlow would be a drain on the state. Really? Might it not make good on old investment? There are 1200/1300 staff already employed across both IoTs and around 12,000 students as it is.

I won’t make any south east arguments, because the case should be obvious. Although it is never 100% possible to determine cause, there is little difference between the south east and the west and mid-west except the lack of prioritisation in areas such as higher level education. (I don’t remember reading that part in the constitution that said that the south east would be wound down over the next century… relative to formerly famine stricken wastelands.)

The real tragedy here is that DIT will be upgraded automatically, despite the superabundance of universities in the Dublin region. This is the real disgrace.

Rather than citing how small Ireland is to have 8/9 universities, maybe we should talk about how small the Dublin region is to have 4/5! A DIT upgrade would also turn the IoT sector into a purely ‘regional’ affair thus diminishing the sector even further. Give it 3/4 years and there’ll be jokes about wellington boots and agricultural courses…

@ Norman Wyse

You have a link to a blog, apparently without a profile; so who are you and are you one of our cherished vested interests?

@ All

On Monday Minster Richard Bruton signed off on 2 press releases announcing a total of 75 new jobs in 2 firms by 2014; in each there is a reference to ‘high value jobs,’ departmentalspeak for jobs in tech companies; meanwhile, German Mittelstand (SMEs) focus on market niches, typically in staid-sounding areas such as mechanical engineering rather than sexy ones like software and dominate the global market in an astonishing range of areas.  They take on 83% of all apprentices in Germany, more than their share of total employment. The apprenticeship system has roots in the Middle Ages, when master craftsmen across Europe taught young men the skills of stonemasonry, carpentry, and roof-making.

Germany has a stronger economy than France but half the percentage of young adults with a college degree. 

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington DC, commented last year that France had increased its percentage of young adults with college degrees by 13 percentage points in the previous ten years whereas Germany’s output of college graduates had hardly budged, yet the economic growth rate of Germany has exceeded that of France over this same period.
Whitehurst said obviously increasing educational attainment is not a magic bullet for economic growth. Education credentials operate within boundaries and possibilities that are set by other characteristics of national economies.  “We must attend to these if more education is to translate into more jobs,'” he said.

South Korean 15-year-olds rank first in reading and maths, and third (behind Finland and Japan) in science, according to the OECD’s international PISA tests. The Korean system is the closest one can get to a factory-type system.

Parents view a third level education as essential to ensure a middle class lifestyle.

However, Korean officials are alarmed that many graduates are not finding jobs – -more than 40% in the past year, even though the Korean economy was doing pretty well. That is why President Lee Myung-bak is promoting alternatives.

Late last year the president urged employers to hire more high school graduates and promised, as an example, to hire three into the presidential Blue House this year and three more next year. “Professional footballers just need to be good at kicking balls,” Lee said. “They don’t need to graduate from Seoul National University.”

The government is also investing in vocational schools designed to put young people on a career track without going to college. “Reckless entrance into college,” Lee has said, is “bringing huge losses to households and the country alike.”

The New York Times reported a few months ago that for decades, a bachelor’s degree was all that was required to become a pharmacist. That changed in 2004 when a doctorate replaced the bachelor’s degree as the minimum needed to practice. Physical therapists once needed only bachelor’s degrees, too, but the profession will require doctorates of all students by 2015 – – the same year that nursing leaders intend to require doctorates of all those becoming nurse practitioners.

In the US, currently, most schools operate two 14-week semesters (plus part-time summer study), a utilisation of a mere 50% of the year – –  similar to Ireland.

US student debt is rising and people are beginning to wonder if it’s really worth it to begin a work life if lucky, saddled with debt?

Bruton promotes ‘high value jobs,’ but we are generally thankful for mind-numbing desk jobs.

It is a false dichotomy to claim office work is knowledge-oriented while physical work is devoid of knowledge. Much of so-called white-collar work is mind-numbingly boring and that can apply to “knowledge economy,” work, as much as paper processing routines. Professions have developed jargon to give a gloss to what is often the mundane. Why has dentistry a perceived higher social status than plumbing when income levels can be similar.

@Michael Hennigan
I’m an ‘anonymous coward’ as some boards used to say. 🙂 Kind of prefer to be judged on what I say rather than who I am… I am from Waterford, which is why I understand the issue, but I’m not interested in making arguments that only apply to Waterford or the south east. But these days speaking of regional equality is considered tantamount to parochialism, which of course is ridiculous. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” Kant. Note that Kant’s categorical imperative would not preclude rationalisation of the university sector…

Interesting post by the way.

We have been over this ground on this blog before. It is worth looking at some data:
For Waterford (city and county) in 2006 25.3% of those who had completed their education held a 3rd level qualification (ranked 12th) . The national average was 29.1%.
It won’t come as any surprise that Dublin (all four counties) had the highest proportion with a 3rd level qualification (35.9%), followed by Kildare(31.8%), Galway (31.8%), Wicklow (31.5%), Cork (29.9%), Meath (29.2%), Sligo (27.8%), Clare (27.5%) and Limerick (27%). Bringing up the rear is Monaghan 20.8%.
This pattern is very persistent – the correlation between the ranking in 1971 and 2006 is 0.81. There is also significant divergence (i.e. counties with a high proportion with 3rd level grow that proportion faster than those counties with a low share).
So Sligo which has an IT has a higher proportion of the population with a 3rd level qualification than Limerick, which has a University and does a lot better than Waterford.
This suggests that switching from one type of institution (IT) to another (university) is not sufficient to make a difference – certainly not in the short to medium term. There is a lot more to this, but I do not sense a great appetite in looking at this in more depth.

“Rather than citing how small Ireland is to have 8/9 universities, maybe we should talk about how small the Dublin region is to have 4/5!”

The Dublin region contains just under 4/9 of the population. It is also a region centred on a global-sized city, which allows it to compete for plenty of national and international staff and students.


Regional universities aren’t about education outcomes. Same way regional hospitals aren’t about health outcomes. Look to the usual Irish public policy motive: local jobs in your local area of your local TD working for you.

When you have a large concentration of population, such as we have in Dublin, you expect to have more reach with fewer universities. Instead in Ireland, we have 4 universities in the greater Dublin area (1.8m), and will probably have a 5th soon (1 university for 360K people), whereas the south east region, with 460K people currently has no university. This is ridiculous, and one wonders why the charge of parochialism was never made with regard to full university status awarded to NUIM in 1997 or is currently not made with regard to DIT who are a shoe-in for university status. How many universities have to be built in the GDA before the critical eye turns inwards, I wonder?

Furthermore, if the south east does get a university, it will do so at the expense of two institutes of technology. Those shouting about the waste of funds might look to Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin where in addition to university provision there are also one or more IoTs. In the west, with a smaller population than the south east, you have 1 university and 2 IoTs.

I’d be more worried about the sectoral interests in our third level elite than the vested interests in the south east (The technological university and its vested interests: Trust me, if parochial vested interests in Waterford and the south east were anything like what was in Limerick or Galway, the WIT would have been upgraded long ago. In fact the WIT is 2 years older than UL.

In France ,following the decentralization laws of 1982 ,there has been a multiplication of small universities and 2 year colleges (Instituts universitaires de technologie) in the remotest parts of the country. Each politician wants to have a university in its constituency. This has been a disaster ,those institutions are much too small to have any research department ,many of the professors live in Paris and spend only half the week in the town of their university ,and the students have to live in a culturally deprived environment . Also ,there are economy of scales in teaching as well as in research.
@Michael Hennigan
I am very much an admirer of the German apprenticeship system ,but it is not a substitute to universities ,Germany desperately lack engineers and scientists and try to import and retain them .Many German firms have opened plants and laboratories in the neighboring countries precisely for that reason .For example Airbus main design work is done in Toulouse ,although the number of German and French employees in the company is roughly the same.
In all developed countries the unemployment rate is much lower (less than half) than in the general population .University graduates are not fungible, a civil engineering graduate or a computer scientist contributes more to the GNP and its growth than a Greek philosophy or a sociology graduate ,so the proportion of university graduates in the population is rather meaningless as an economic indicator.
Finally ,if it is true that the German economy has been doing better than the French since 2009,this has not always be true .If you take the last 10 years, or a longer period, the rates of growth have been very close .The best chance of Ireland is its high rate of growth of the population and it is important that they will be well educated.

Here we go again with the Political Pork Gravy Train. Never mind the Austerity Programme (whatever that is) let us (legislators and local vested interests) spend more of other people’s (taxpayer’s) money. Carry on, regardless.

It will take a very courageous, and foolish, person to satnd in front of this Gravy Train. Looks like that species may be extinct.

An educated population (not just workforce) is useful. But the level and nature of the education – its must be of a continuous nature, not merely episodic – is a mighty contentious issue.

If, and its an heroic if. we need new third-level facilities. And where is the need? Then construct them as close to the target population as possible – and definitely beside a rail line (even a defunct one). Next, the state will only pay fees for Level 7 courses that are taken in non-university institutes. After that its economic fees all round: no exceptions. Persons with disabilities are a separate issue and may apply for tuition and maintenance fees. Commercial lending for student tuition and maintenance would have to be totally banned: moral hazard! Financial institutions have amply demonstrated that they are incapable of moral, ethical, or even legal behaviour in respect of lending.

Upgrade Maynooth by dismantling DIT and DCU. UCD and TCD can pick over the debris. Maynooth has population and rail. Waterford and CIT. Combine and split activities. Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Athlone, Sligo, Letterkenny. Dismantle all. UCC, UL and UCG might want to take choice cuts. Fine. Then re-site residues in Leitrim/Roscommon along the main road and rail routes. Beautiful countryside. Dundalk: has some potential. Blanchardstown, Tallaght and Dun Laoghaire. Amalgamate and force into a Learning Consortium with UCD and TCD. We do have broadband? I Hope.

Finally, force an amalgamation of all administrative and library resources on the entire lot. No exceptions. Anyone wants out, that’s fine. They get no state funding of any sort. Do not neglect to talk to bozoes in that other jurisdiction. They might be interested in Letterkenny and Dundalk. Its the money and the math.

But votes will dictate 8)


@ Roger

I agree with you. The South East needs a NEW University not something cobbled together for Politicians to salivate on. There are a lot of crap courses in the ITs and some good ones. The ITs when the gravy train was running wanted to get their numbers up at all costs so that they could be converted to Universities which is not the same as creating a new University.Starting from new would also allow for the clearout of wasters in the Institutes of Technology of which there are many. NIHE Limerick and Dublin should never have been given University status but that status was given because of C Haughey and D O’Malley. They were never anyway near University level in terms of the breadth of courses and subjects available to study for. NUIM creation may have something to do with C Mc Creevey. Any Institition to be called “University” must have a substantial Humanities teaching function which these so called Universities have not got. The best Entrepreneurs/Businessmen, Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers and Administrators have usually had a component of Arts education in English,Greek,Latin,Continental Languages,Maths etc before moving into their specialist fields. Techs cannot provide that component in education.

This will be another disaster because it has not been thought out and it will not save the South East just as UL has not saved the Mid West from economic desolation.

I always thought it was a real shame that the RTCs were turned into mini universities. They provided really good practical courses. i would employ an RTC graduate over a university graduate due to the practical dimension. I can remember how embaressing it was when the RTC grads. came into UCG in second year and they were so much more competent than we were in the labs and had actual useful qualifications, water safety, boat licences (we were doing marine science).
But of course Irish snobbery soon did away with that

@TRP – “NUIM creation may have something to do with C Mc Creevey.” – you should have a look at the history of NUIM before making such a statement – it traces its origins back to 1795 (St. Patrick’s College).

Whether or not WIT gets an upgrade or redesignation to university isn’t that big a deal. Eight universities isn’t very much worse than seven, and there is a real case that the south-east suffers from being the main centre of significant population that is not home to a university.

The real problem will be if other IoTs are allowed to follow along out of a sense of fairness or because they can meet some set of criteria or other. The case for WIT is one-off, based on considerations of economic geography, and does not apply to CIT, LIT, GMIT, DIT, Tallaght, Blanchardstown or Dun Laoghaire which sit close to existing universities, or to the IoTs located in other provincial towns.

Moreover, if other IoTs are allowed to follow, this will negate the benefit to the south-east. If WIT becomes the eighth university, this will only benefit the region if it can raise the drawbridge behind it. If “technological university” becomes just new term for “Institute of Technology”, then the south-east will gain no net benefit.

Attaching Carlow to WIT will undermine this exclusivity, so it should not be done. Moreover, a change to university status will almost inevitably lead to courses leading to qualifications below level 8 being further downgraded at WIT, and it will be important to have an IoT type institution in the region that can bridge the gap that this will cause.

If WIT becomes a university, I foresee a need for another institution to provide higher education courses at levels 6 and 7 and apprentice training in Waterford. Carlow is the most obvious candidate to do this. Indeed, it might even make sense for some activities and staff in WIT to be detached from the institution, and attached to Carlow. This could make sense both from an education management perspective, and to allow any WIT staff who wish to keep their existing terms of employment to do so while the rest shift to university-type conditions.

Specifically on DIT, while redesignation to university status would be a mistake, at least the institution is one-of-a-kind, so the risk of further contagion is less than with other insitutions.


The case of the conversion or Waterford RTC to WIT was supposed to be a “one-off” too, but was quickly followed by political lobbying by Cork RTC, and then the others. The whole thing was a massive stationery bill paid by the ordinary people, but for no gain, just changing the names from “Regional Technical College” to “Institute of Technology”, but they are still ‘Regional’ (everything is in some region), ‘Technical’ (for the most part, and even the non-engineering/science courses deal with ‘technical’ aspects of that particular discipline), and they are still ‘Colleges’.

Good institutions with a good reputation keep their name, as it has weight.
MIT does a lot more than Technology, but kept the name as it had EARNED a reputation – no desperate need to change the name & put ‘University’ in the title. Similarly with the LSE which does more than Economics.
I thought it a pity that Ireland’s own National College of Industrial Relations (NCIR), which also had a certain good track record & reputation, changed its name to the ‘National College of Ireland’ (which just sounds a bit silly…if I saw an ad for a ‘National College of England’ it would make me think of some fly-by-night operation run by two Cockney wide-boys, shaking down unsuspecting foreign students for cash).

We also saw it in the re-branding of the (then) less outstanding NUI colleges. The two better ones (then), UCD and UCC, are still known by those acronyms, as they had weight. The other two had the re-branding and wanted the supposed reflected glory of the NUI in their title (I would have thought it better if UCG stayed as it was, and maybe then just one name-change with the college in Kildare becoming ‘University College Maynooth’ – UCM).

Name and title changes are always suspicious. The thing is to EARN the reputation first (like MIT, LSE etc.) and then the name will have such cachet that they won’t want to change the name.

The same is at least partly true of National Anthems – years ago a German friend said imagine the fuss if they had an anthem mentioning ‘Soldiers of Destiny’? But that’s the whole point: Ireland doesn’t have such a terrible 20th century history, and so can have that old anthem with old fashioned out-of-date things in it.

The desperate need to get the word ‘university’ in the title reminds me of the character in a novel (one of Evelyn Waugh’s?) who put the following letters after his name: “B.A. (Calcutta) (failed)”

DO the work, PUBLISH good papers in PEER-REVIEWED journals, EARN the reputation. (Some years ago I heard of some lecturers in the former RTC sector who were teaching in a certain area and there was a review by a state body. They were asked if they had published any papers, and in what journals? No, they hadn’t. They were asked if they were to publish a paper, what journal would they publish it in? No, they couldn’t name a journal. They couldn’t name a journal in the subject-area they were lecturing in.

I think things have improved, not because of the name change to I.T.’s, but because of the reviews etc., but there was a lot of work to do, and that’s what’s always required, not a name-change to something with ‘university’ in the title.

On the other hand, Waterford could keep the acronym, WIT, but change the ‘W’ from ‘Waterford’ to ‘Wadding’, after Luke Wadding, surely (one of) Waterford’s greatest scholars? Or alternatively ‘Wadding College’. This will make it stand out from the others in the former-RTC sector, but without suspiciously and vainly putting ‘university’ in the title. Then continue to build its reputation by hard work. It already has a good reputation in a few areas.


I dont know anything about Roman Catholic Seminary Universities created in the 18th Century ,but, I am referring to a new creation named National University of Ireland Maynooth created by feckless Politicians in the 20th Century .

Just like we have had Grades erosion over the last twenty years in some of the so called Universities we are going to have the same in terms the Grade of University when every Tom,Dick and Harry of Tech is going to be upgraded to University status.


That history is what informed my comment.

To be fair on the past name change, the adoption of the IoT moniker coincided with some pretty major changes in the sector, from being mostly about two year certificate courses to having ladders available first to diploma and then to primary degree level in most subjects. It wasn’t all about academic drift either – skill levels required by industry went up over the period.

It also coincided with the start of a real push to upgrade the qualifications and academic quality of staff in the sector. It’s a slow process because permanent jobs in the sector are secure, and you have rightly quoted some anecdotal evidence of this.

That said, it’s not long since a good many university academics in Ireland were completely research-inactive, and the universities are still afflicted with a significant amount of academic dead wood.

I wish commentators would take the time to check out a few basic facts about WIT, such as its research output and degree profile, before writing on this issue…note for example that that the facts and figures given in the Irish Times article pertain to the IoT sector as a whole, not to WIT – very misleading

How about something along the lines of the University of the Basque Country. Three campuses across three cities each with their own set of specializations. So a new university campus in Waterford would come about only by matching it to the UL Galway strategic partnership and only then if there was a agreement to cut out duplication. The number of universities in this country is not an issue in as much as the number of faculties and departments.

An additional remark. There might be too much emphasis on bricks and mortar. We have to think about third level education

apologies i hit the submit button by accident

we have to anticipate how the Free Classes from Stanford and MIT will change the dynamic of how one is educated.

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