On Thursday the government published its ‘framework for sustainable economic renewal’, entitled Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. The introduction explains that the framework ‘sets out the Government’s vision for the next phase of Ireland’s economic development’. A significant part of the focus is the encouragement of research and development, and entrepreneurship. The government plans to create an ’Innovation Island’, making Ireland ‘the innovation and commercialisation capital of Europe – a country that combines the features of an attractive home for innovative multinationals while also being an incubation environment for the best entrepreneurs from Europe and further afield. ‘
In addressing the principles underlying government action to achieve this vision, one is explained as the recognition that ‘concentration of research investments is as important, if not more important, than the absolute amount of funding’. This theme is pursued further a couple of pages on where the threats facing the country are listed, one of which is ‘a relatively large number of third-level institutions for the size of the population and a below average spend on R&D, with a need to concentrate investment and achieve efficiencies.’ And a little further on again there is a section on ‘restructuring the higher education system’, which begins as follows:
‘Ireland has a relatively large number of third-level institutions. International research shows that the concentration of investment in research and development is important in advancing research innovation. In successfully advancing our knowledge capacity, there is now a need to re-examine the roles and relationships of higher education institutions across the Irish system. Through the last ten years of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), and more recently the Strategic Innovation Fund, impressive new inter-institutional collaborations have been created. However, the next phase of economic development will require an even greater concentration of resources and expertise. This will involve re-thinking future institutional roles and organisational relationships in higher education to enable the Irish system to reach new levels of research and innovation performance.’
The document goes on to indicate that these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming Higher Education Strategy that will be launched shortly. And one of the resulting action points will be as follows:
‘Higher Education institutions will be supported in pursuing new organisational mergers and alliances that can advance performance through more effective concentration of expertise and investment.’
What are we to make of this? There is no doubt that investment in research produces the best results when it is highly focused and supports agreed priorities. But as the government’s document itself mentions, collaborative and partnership arrangements between Ireland’s higher education institutions have already produced significant concentrations of support for inter-institutional (and interdisciplinary) teams working closely together. There is some undoubted scope for developing such collaboration further – and I suspect that the universities will willingly work with such plans.
I have a fear however that we may get side-tracked into more grandiose restructuring debates around mergers, or that some institutions may in fact be pushed down the latter path. There may be a good case for an assessment of the structure of the sector, including an assessment of the benefits that could accrue from rationalisation. But such a process should not be confused with innovation. Indeed if the latter is our main aim, then restructuring may actually delay or derail substantive innovation programmes, as the focus will shift from substantive innovation to institutional defensiveness and, in some cases, resistance.
I fear also that some may wish to debate the idea that a single Irish university – or maybe two – should be identified that will get the bulk or all of research funding in order to maximise international impact. The result of any such move would be to call into question the viability in terms of excellence of the remaining institutions.
Of course I do not know exactly what the government has in mind as it develops its plans, and it makes sense to wait for more information and to engage in constructive dialogue around the formulation of the new Higher Education Strategy. It also makes sense for individual institutions, and groups of institutions, to continue to look for ways in which collaboration and rationalisation can develop further. But I hope that the period ahead will not be characterised by institutional navel-gazing and defensiveness, and that the government does not take steps that make such distractions more likely. It is important that we all work together to advance the national interest and to hasten our escape from the recession.