These are certainly strange times up at DkIT; and not exclusively because of the Covid-19 pandemic either.
The Dublin Road-based institute is slowly, but surely becoming an outlier among its peers.
By next year several other ITs around the country are expected to have linked up and formed Technological Universities (or TUs) – these particular new bodies will likely be in the mid-west, north-west and south-east.
You’ll notice from that list a lack of a ‘north-east’ inclusion.
DkIT has, for reasons not entirely fully understandable, decided to go it alone and not forge ahead with joining up with other ITs at present to form a TU.
This, on the face of it, may seem like a rather inconsequential strategic decision, which, when looked at geographically, makes a lot of sense.
The nearest IT to Dundalk is probably Athlone (AIT) – not exactly a neighbouring institute. But even AIT has decided to do a TU deal with Limerick IT and their TU plans are steaming ahead.
Looking to the northwest, a conglomeration including IT Sligo, GMIT and Letterkenny IT has already become a strategically solid partnership and even has a fancy website and name – Connacht-Ulster Alliance (CUA).
In many ways CUA is probably the closest fit for DkIT. The Ulster angle would work very much in Dundalk’s favour here, considering our border location. But, alas, this ship too has almost certainly sailed.
CUA and the idea of TUs has not been something which has just appeared over the horizon in recent times, either.
An MoU (memorandum of understanding – or ‘deal’ for the rest of us) was struck back in July 2012 between the CUA-interested institutes.
The Technological Universities Act, 2018 has laid the legislative groundwork to essentially turn ITs into TUs. It’s a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ sort of thing. And DkIT is currently in another pond right now.
So, where does this leave DkIT?
If the headlines flaunted locally last week are anything to go by, you’d say: ‘not too bad, really’.
What is being described as a “major campus upgrade” is due to get underway shortly in a deal worth reportedly €18.4m.
This funding was part of the pre-pandemic Project Ireland 2040 masterplan.
But unrest has been bubbling within the local institute for some time now. Any hope of parallel thinking by staff and the president’s office would appear to be dead in the water.
Union staff at DkIT has been pleading for engagement and proactive pursuit of TU status for some time now, while strategically the official line from DkIT management and the president’s office has been less than clear.
While all of this is chugging on in the background, the primary stakeholders in all of this – the students – have been left looking on with deep concern.
It is not hyperbole to say that future careers and even livelihoods rest on where DkIT goes next.
There’s also the rather coldly and clinical understanding that third-level education is a business and attracting prospective students is financially vital for these organisations to succeed.
Could there be a situation were the TUs become a more attractive proposition and drain some prospective students away from DkIT? It’s not beyond possibility.
It could turn out to be a boldly successful strategy to remain the only isolated Institute of Technology in the state.
Some staff within DkIT feel that President Michael Mulvey is pushing for a more regional cross-border type of amalgamation (with Newry/Down/Armagh third level bodies).
But this path, certainly considering the Brexit debacle, looks decidedly dicey right now.
While DkIT’s location has been a hindrance in some regards to forming up with other ITs to form a TU, it may also be it’s saving grace. It is the only IT of its size in the north-east; an area covering Cavan, Monaghan, Meath and Louth.
Add to that the consistent influx of students from Armagh and Down and it’s possible it can hold its own going forward.
Still, where’s the ambition? Students and staff alike would be more than willing to buy into a future pathway forward if it were actually communicated and sold to them openly. Right now, it appears there’s a dialogue-vacuum between the president’s office and some staff.
And this chasm will only grow larger the longer this communication breakdown goes on.
This is simply unacceptable, regardless of who turns out to be right or wrong.
TU status will quite probably become the gold-standard for traditional industry-focused third-level education in Ireland into the future.
If DkIT is not among this cohort, what way will it be viewed both within the state and outside of it by prospective students?
During what is such an already worrying time in general for students, that particular question remains another deeply worrying unknown in its own right.