So farewell then, NUI…

It is quite possible, indeed likely, that others will have been given advance notice of the demise of the National University of Ireland (NUI), but I first became aware of it by reading it on the RTE website. Of course DCU (like TCD and UL also) is not a member of the NUI, and to that extent is not directly affected, but clearly there will be some implications for the whole university sector. The complete absence of any prior discussion therefore strikes me as odd.

What actually happened was that yesterday (Wednesday) the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, issued a press release in which he declared that he ‘is to dissolve the National University of Ireland’. That, it would have to be said, is a fairly grand statement. The NUI is a statutory body established under the Irish Universities Act 1908 (enacted by the Westminster Parliament), as amended by the Universities Act 1997. In that sense the Minister cannot ‘dissolve’ the NUI any more than I can, though of course he (unlike me) can introduce legislation with that end in mind. That, presumably, is what his statement is intended to convey, and indeed the suggestion in the press release is that this will be done as part of the legislation that is to establish the new quality assurance agency.

It may be worth reminding ourselves about the origins of the NUI. It emerged from what had initially been the establishment of the three Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway in 1845, under the umbrella of the Queen’s University of Ireland (which, with some modifications, became the Royal University of Ireland in 1879). In 1908 the NUI was established, with Cork and Galway changing their names to University College Cork and University College Galway, and these were joined by University College Dublin (previously the Catholic University). Queen’s College Belfast became an independent university outside of the NUI. While the constituent colleges were given a fair amount of autonomy, a number of quality and administrative functions were exercised by the NUI, though these became less significant after the enactment of the Universities Act 1997. The NUI also has a single Chancellor for all of the constituent and recognised colleges.

It is clear that the configuration of the Irish university sector is currently undergoing significant change, and within that setting it was always unlikely that the NUI would survive for long, not least because some of its members were forging strategic links with non-NUI institutions. For all that, this announcement by the Minister was rather sudden, and it might have seemed more logical to wait for the report of the strategic review of higher education that he himself commissioned last year and which is due to be issued in March.

I cannot argue very much with the decision as such. But I do wonder about the way it was taken and communicated, and about the absence of any strategic context for it. It is alarming that such steps continue to be taken without a broader discussion and consultation; although I hope that at least those more directly affected were consulted in detail and were aware in advance of the timing of this announcement.

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24 Comments on “So farewell then, NUI…”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    Well those of us at the chalkface weren’t aware in advance, that’s for sure. And the fact that significant ‘constitutional’ change is made by ministerial diktat whilst a review team is cuurently in place, as you point out , raises concerns about the nature of the process and is likely to increase uncertainty as well as illustrate forcefully that institutional autonomy is a thing of the past. But perhaps I’m over-reacting and we have a secret new name up our sleeves along with Maynooth.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    So along with a bit of nostalgia, I’m an NUI graduate, all sorts of fun questions: what happens to NCAD and RCSI, having slipped St Pats away from the NUI, DCU must have an interest, probably in the former. What about the names; Universities of Galway and Maynooth for sure, what about UCD and UCC? Who gets 49 Merrion Sq?

    • Vincent Says:

      Ucd and Ucc have the same as NUI, Galway at the moment. It’s just at the time ten years ago they decided to continue to style themselves as before.

  3. Bridget Says:

    While it’s true that the NUI was never going to survive for much longer, it’s sad that it’s finally being done away with. But I must wonder, along with other posters, what will NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth do now? Also, what will be the consquences for the Senate and those elected from the NUI?
    I’m hoping it doesn’t leave too soon, just so I can say I graduated from the NUI.

  4. Mark Dowling Says:

    A read of the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution Act should be instructive to DCU alumni. This provides that the existing NUI/TCD Seanad election carve up can be varied, and that the Government can abolish either of the aforementioned institutions.

    Surely a fairer election system, where all third level graduates receive a vote, must be the end result of the necessary changes to accommodate NUI’s demise.

    Of course, they could just abolish the whole waste of time and money itself – that would be fine too. I’m sure we can find Senator Norris another gig.

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    It’s also a pity that the discussion has been about what the NUI has been reduced to over the years, ie an organisation with a relatively marginal set of functions, rather than taking a more imaginative look forward as to the opportunities a pan-institutional body might have, particularly in providing shared services and in terms of international profile and recruitment.

    This would have been more legitimate of course if all 7 universities were part of the same body and that organisation served their needs, allowing them autonomy of mission and operation but strengthening cooperation in key fields. A single student identifier for example would even facilitate transfer between courses, joint subject alliances (such as are emerging to some very limited extent in shared graduate programmes, but stronger as in SUPA), single purchasing agreements for procurement, etc. But that’s not the world we’re in I guess. Competition rather than cooperation seems to be the way things are going, with institutions being encouraged to slug it out amongst each other.

    Or, again, am I being too pessimistic/naive?

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      While I don’t really agree with you Iainmaci; I do wonder why there has never been a proper discussion of whether we need a genuine National University. At a time when the government is itchy to exert more control over the sector, would it not make sense to have three or four of the 10-ish universities we end up designated as part of a National University, with a different relationship to the government, more vulnerable to their, in my view usually misguided research and teaching policy initiatives, better funded from central funds, but more constrained in what fees they charge.

      This crayonism, the inclination to try to simplify a sector which thrives on complexity, is misguided: perhaps the nation would benefit if the government could meddle in some part of the third-level sector, more likely it would benefit more from more independent third-level institutions: why choose one path over the other?

    • Iain, I’m not sure we’re being encouraged to ‘slug it out’; rather we are being told to enter into strategic partnerships.

      Your idea of a sector-wide NUI was tried by Garrett FitzGerald when he was chancellor, but it proved impossible to persuade the non-members to consider joining – partly because (speaking for DCU) we feared this would be used to establish a state-run strategic centralisation.

      • iainmacl Says:

        yes that is of course the danger if a central organisation is to lead rather than service the needs of the individual institutions. Perhaps I mean more of a cooperative than a central bureaucracy…but then this just illustrates the point that you make, that there has been no proper discussion/exploration of models and an impression of continued ad-hoc decision making.

  6. otto Says:

    This was proposed in McCarthy report and commented on in the time. So it’s not correct to say there was a “complete absence of any prior discussion”. In fact, compared to many policy initiatives in Ireland, this was one of the more publicly trailed and highlighted. Would that the question of university fees had been treated in such a public manner with a concrete proposal on which comments could have been made.

    • Otto, there is a significant difference between a committee proposing it to government and government acting upon it. I understand that nobody in the NUI colleges was consulted before the Minister took his decision, and that simply cannot be right.

  7. Jilly Says:

    I think I see the reasoning here. Once the NUI has gone, all of its former constituent colleges will need their own chancellors…

    …and after the next election, there could well be quite a few former FF politicians looking for a comfortable sinecure to top up their Dail pensions and add a nice job title to their business cards. QED…

  8. Vincent Says:

    I seem to remember that the reason for the division in 1997 had to do with UCD acting like a big Cuckoo starving the others of funds.
    But in all this what I fear most is that the Uni Senators are removed totally, all of them. And Democracy will be the worst for it, for regardless of my earlier comment about Ronan. The NUI have three that split in a remarkable reflection of real society. Right, middle and very slightly left. While two of the three from TCD can do no wrong and are seen in the same way as the term Patriot.

  9. belfield Says:

    A cynical reading might suggest that when an organisation of some sort is not as ‘flexible’ around some key policy agenda points as it ‘should be’ from a political perspective, you do one of two things. Take it on and smash it. Or set up alternative structures and discourses that do respond readily to the times & tides, then let the offending article wither to the point where it has clearly ‘outlived’ its usefulness, before doing the decent thing and killing it off.

  10. Iain Says:

    Here’s the statement from the Chancellor following today’s Senate meeting.

    • belfield Says:

      Well, from that statement it would seem that just about everyone in the NUI world was blindsided by this.

      Where on earth did the Minster get his advice and guidance? What numpty would put a reputation and name like the NUI’s on the line for some half-baked, ill-considered and as yet non-existent Quality Body?

      • I think the intention probably was to do this in what would be seen as a decisive way. Having said that, and regardless of the merits or otherwise of the move, the idea that you might close down a university without first talking to anyone in it is, shall we say, interesting.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      DIAS must be petrified!

  11. Iainmacl Says:

    Good to see a Scottish word like ‘numpty’ spreading its wings over the last several years and adding flavour to other dialects!


    Scottish usage:
    a) Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others.

    b) A good humoured admonition, a term of endearment

    c) A reckless, absent minded or unwise person
    a) “No. That wisnae wit she meant, ya big numpty!”

    b) i.e. “Silly billy”, “You big dafty”

    c) “That numpty’s driving with no lights on!”

  12. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Both NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth have stated that they are keeping their names, I am surprised since it implies a link between them that doesn’t really exist, Maynooth may consider that they need Ireland in their name. I wonder if UCC will drop the middle C.

  13. Anonymous Quango Says:

    On 14 October 2009, the rationalisation of a number of state bodies was announced in the budget. This included the suggestion that “in seeking to ensure a coherent approach to qualifications and quality assurance, there will also be discussions with the National University of Ireland around the possibility of including some of the related functions of the NUI in the new organisation.”

    How can anybody suggest that the dissolution of the NUI is a bolt from the blue? Everybody in the QA sector has known that it was on the cards for the last 16 months.

    In relation to the importance of and antiquity of the NUI brand and how its dissolution will threaten the stability of civil society in Ireland, the Universities Act (1997) changed the names of University College Dublin and University College Cork to National University of Ireland, Dublin and National University of Ireland, Cork respectively. Both “Colleges” subsequently petitioned the Minister for Education and Science under to amend their names and they were amended by ministerial order (as provided for in the 1997 Act) to UCD, NUID and UCC, NUIC. Both “Colleges” have quietly dropped the NUI bit on the website since. Some international brand!

    • I think that no matter how anticipated this step was, it required some consultation. You mention the quality bodies. This was indeed announced as you say, but this was followed in their case by detailed discussions and working parties. The NUI people had a phone call. There’s a difference!

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