There it is again. Once again we are being told that we have too many higher education institutions. This is how the Irish Independent yesterday reported comments by Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA):
‘Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State’s third-level funding body has warned… Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally. Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation. The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.’
This topic has been covered in this blog before, but it may be worthwhile reiterating one or two key points.
First, it is impossible to say on what basis we would have ‘too many’ universities. As I pointed out previously, measured against the size of our population Ireland has fewer universities than most developed countries. Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.
Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In the most recent Times Higher Education global rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number 8 in the rankings, has 6,708 students, while Caltech at number 10 has only 2.245; both of these would therefore be smaller than any Irish university. The number 1 university, Harvard, is smaller than either UCD or TCD. In fact, not a single one of the global top 10 universities would, if in Ireland, be the largest institution. Conversely, not a single one of the world’s 100 largest universities features in the global rankings at all. In short, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that larger universities perform more strongly than smaller ones; if anything, the evidence goes the other way.
Thirdly, the history of university mergers is not helpful. Many of them have failed. Indeed, the only one of any note that took place over recent years that seems to have worked is the merger between the University of Manchester and UMIST, though even there it would be fair to say that the merger has not produced the improvement in the league tables that had been predicted. Most mergers cost a lot of money and take a long time to settle down, if indeed the merger succeeds at all.
The problem here is that we appear to be developing a national policy based on asserted benefits which are in fact totally unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. We need to ensure that these plans and ideas are subjected to proper scrutiny and not just blindly accepted.
All of this is annoying also because calls for mergers distract from the discussion, which I agree we should have, about the appropriate distribution of provision and the avoidance of duplication. Here too the case is not as simple as might at first appear. But I shall return to that in another post over the next few days.