Awash with universities?

Maybe it’s time to nail one increasingly common assertion: that by international standards Ireland has too many universities. Of course it is not altogether easy to say what one might mean by ‘too many’, but maybe one way of tackling this is to compare the number of universities with that in other 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.

What point am I making? That on the statistics alone the claim about Ireland is not borne out. Even if one were to add the Institutes of Technology (which would be misleading), the figure for Ireland would still only be somewhere in the middle of the above list. On the data alone one would have to conclude that Ireland has relatively few universities by international standards.

As it happens, there are good arguments for looking at the possibility of creating strong strategic links between clusters of institutions in Ireland, and it is in the national interest to ensure that our university sector collaborates very strongly. But the view that has been expressed in various official documents – including the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued last December by the government – that we have more universities than do other countries is simply wrong. And, I suppose, that reinforces the point I have made before, that we need to ensure that our policies are evidence-based.

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16 Comments on “Awash with universities?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Do we really need six medical schools? I am guessing that there are significant fixed costs associated with having such a school.

  2. Vincent Says:

    yeah well, when you close into a seven fingered fist for the big projects, I for one would feel a damn sight happier.
    As to silly Reformation divisions, again I could not care less if cash is infused into the study of Physics in a search to prove he existence of Greenmen.
    Shit, shur we have an entry, did Osin not leap on a horse on his way to Tir na Óg. Tir na Óg being on the lefthand of the Pinwheel Galaxy M101.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Oh, and one would have to question the soundness of a man who thought it a good thing that his woman -Niamh- had a voice like a Harp. I can see no good coming from that at all.

  4. Jilly Says:

    “…that reinforces the point I have made before, that we need to ensure that our policies are evidence-based.”

    Hmm. Precious little chance of that, I fear, looking at recent experience, and not just in the area of 3rd-level education. I think that a big part of the problem goes back to another recent discussion here, about the role of the Irish media in interrogating (or not) the contents of the various reports, statements and figures released from official or semi-official sources.

    The data and facts in your blog today aren’t really rocket science to calculate (no offence!), and few if any Irish journalists have bothered to do them. Similar lack of further investigation or critique is evident in the journalistic reception of recent ESRI reports, or indeed much of the McCarthy Report. Straightforward, flat-out factual inaccuracies are cheerfully printed, reprinted and then become ‘common knowledge’ on a regular basis: and that’s before we get to the very slightly more complex thought necessary to critique the methodologies (or vested interests) of reports or studies like those of the ESRI.

    With journalism of this standard, is it any surprise that politicians feel they don’t need to waste a good crisis when advancing evidence-free ideological plans?


    • Jilly, I absolutely agree with you. I am really tired of our national attempts to make up policy and declare judgement based on someone’s completely unproven assertions. As you rightly say, this information is not hard to get!

      • Vincent Says:

        surely isn’t policy a bit like drilling a well for oil/gas. You do not know if you have a gusher ’til the you are whacking the Christmas-tree to cap the thing.
        If you are drilling in the Persian basin you are pretty much in the one field so your chance is better that you will strike.
        60 miles off the Great Basket you are into riskier territory.
        So in your context are you not over-egging the pud with the use of Proof, when the very best you can hope is that experience will reduce the odds a bit.

  5. Ronan Says:

    I think the point about IoT’s is wrong (but accepted) but the US does not have 1900 full universities as we define them here… they’ve a range of roles for their universities, but in reality they have less than 200 full research universities, and typically no more than 1 per state… so yes they have lots of universities, but there research is concentrated into a very small group (proportionally).

    and while ireland may be fair, Dublin is awash with 3rd level institions for what is a small city… DCU, UCD, TCD, NUIM, DIT, ITB, ITT, NCAD, DunLaoighaire IT.. the list goes on, and then there are the private colleges… it is too many.


    • Ronan, without getting into all of what you write, I’ll need to correct what you say about US universities. Leaving aside whether that’s all that one should count, there are many many more research universities in America than you suggest. The US News and World Report university rankings (which are generally treated as definitive) list 259 ‘national universities’, about 500 additional regional universities offering postgraduate programmes, and a large number of liberal arts colleges.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        @Ronan: consider Boston as a random example of a city smaller than Dublin, I’m including Cambridge: it has seven Universities: Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, Tufts, Boston College and the University of Massachusetts Boston. Beyond that are Wheelock College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Simmons College, Emmanuel College, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Suffolk University, the New England School of Law, Roxbury Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Cambridge College, the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, the Episcopal Divinity School, the Hult International Business School, Lesley University, Longy School of Music and Weston Jesuit School of Theology. There are also numerous institutes and r&d centers and Brandeis is a Maynooth distance away.

  6. cormac Says:

    As well as the number, there is also the question of where they are, as a university can play a large role in the development of a region.
    In Ireland, for religious and historical reasons we have ended up with a good university in the small town of Maynooth, but no university in the city of Waterford, a fact that has been one of the inhibitors of the development of that unfortunate city.

    • Perry Share Says:

      @cormac
      You could equally say that Waterford is fortunate to have one of the largest and most research-active Institutes of Technology in the country, a fact that has been one of the facilitators of the development of that vibrant city!

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Well said Perry share: I am always curious as to why the IT’s with their greater emphasis on local enterprise and vocational skills are considered a poor second to universities as engines of local growth: the people of Waterford will happily get rid of their IT, there is much green eyed stuff about Dublin’s relatively large number of universities, but we get none of the pity we deserve for our relatively small number of IT places.

        On another point, who ever said Maynooth was a good university; it actually ranks behind WIT in research income and behind DIT in world ranking.


  7. Perry and Aoife, you are missing the point on this, as so many commentators do. I too think the IoTs are excellent drivers for a region. However, study after study has shown that, in deciding location, must multinationals plumb for the location with a university.
    That is the reality. You and I may comsider this ill-informed, but we are not the ones who make the decision where to locate.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      I guess my point is that I consider this interesting with regard to the pressures the universities are under to change how they behave: Waterford politicians argue to get rid of Waterford’s IT, politicians of a similar stripe and pattern elsewhere complain that the universities behave like universities and not like RTCs.

      I also don’t understand your NUI Maynooth envy, perhaps you are biased by their traditional strength in theoretical physics, supported by strong links to DIAS, but really Waterford is better off with WIT than it would be with another NUI Maynooth.


  8. You misunderstand the same point again. I don’t envy Maynooth, nor do most WIT staff particularly want to be a university. The drive for a university upgrade – and not to scrap WIT – is spearheaded by the chamber of commerce and other regional interests, not the college. We understand the reasons for it, and support it, although it is probably doomed.

  9. cormac Says:

    That said, academics are notoriously subjective about their own institutions, which is why I rarely comment on the university drive in public. I will say that it is not just a question of industry. I know from first hand experience that the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipp really do suffer a braindrain – the top third of schoolleavers go straight to Trinity, UCD and UCC,often settling there after graduation.


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