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Irish higher education reforms set to create tech universities and regional clusters

Ireland’s government published three documents on 13 February that will set in motion radical reforms of higher education. Universities, institutes of technology and other affected institutions have been given six months to respond with proposals for change.

The first of the documents, issued by the Higher Education Authority, aims to provide a starting point for discussions and encourage institutions to review their role and structure in a reformed sector.

This process follows recommendations made in the National Strategy for Higher Education published in February 2009, which called for major changes, many of which were directed towards consolidating institutions.

The second document lays down the criteria for designating institutions as technological universities—a status long coveted by the institutes. It describes the standards required for an upgrade to university level to be granted.

The third document, Guidelines on Regional Clusters demands that universities and institutes within defined geographic areas must achieve new levels of cooperation to maximise the value gained from state investment in the sector.

The goal is to produce a “more coherent system of higher education institutions”, said Tom Boland, chief executive of the HEA, adding that the agency expects to be in a position to make recommendations on the future structure of higher education to the government “by the end of this year”.

The nature of the expected changes is a clear reflection of existing government policy to increase the return on state investments. Education for education’s sake will not be a predominant feature of the new system.

The HEA said in a statement that it respects the autonomy of universities and other institutes and colleges but that “accountability for public funding and responsiveness to social and economic needs will be important objectives”.

The institutes responded favourably to the forthcoming period of debate, given the tacit agreement that technological universities would be formed. The Irish Federation of University Teachers warned, however, that any consolidation must not result in the loss of experienced staff.