Abolition of the NUI: a postscript

It is probably fair to say that in the 24 hours from the Minister’s announcement that he would ‘dissolve’ the National University of Ireland (NUI) some issues have become clear. First, while it probably could be said that the Minister’s actions were decisive, it is a worrying precedent that a decision with major implications for some universities, and some implications for all – never mind the implications for other people’s livelihoods – could be publicly announced without any prior discussion or consultation whatsoever.

It is obviously right that the decision was not a surprise per se: it had been signalled in the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’ – the McCarthy report), and indeed it had been known for a while that some NUI member institutions would not be unhappy if it were to be wound up. Notwithstanding that, the report of a special committee does not constitute discussion or consultation, nor indeed had there been any real indication that this was a recommendation the government would implement in a hurry. Furthermore, the NUI has a relatively new Chancellor and some senior officials, and one would have expected some consultation with them. This is underscored by the publication on Thursday afternoon of a statement from the Chancellor following a meeting of the NUI Senate, in which several arguments are made against abolition.

For those of us who are not NUI members, there are broader issues about how the strategic direction of the university sector in Ireland is being set, and what level of input there can be from those most affected. In a couple of months we expect a report from the steering group  undertaking the strategic review of higher education. I would expect any recommendations in that report to be implemented only after consultation and an inclusive discussion. That is to say, I would hope that it will work that way, I am not now sure that I expect it.

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19 Comments on “Abolition of the NUI: a postscript”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    Actually, I think that statement reads as a load of tripe. It is for the NUI universities themselves to explain how they remain deficient in needing an overarching structure when DCU, UL and TCD do not. Maybe one of the constituent colleges told Batt they wanted out because they wanted to be released from the Irish language matriculation requirement (see the moaning from the Irish language lobby in today’s papers).

    • Vincent Says:

      I sorry, the only wonder I have is that it took as long as it did.
      And what has the language to do with anything, it’s the only bloody grammer the little persons are ever going to come near in their lives.

  2. otto Says:

    Look, this is wildly exaggerated. The McCarthy report signaled this was on the cards, the government accepted the McCarthy report generally and used it for many aspects of current policy-making, and as in relation to everything else in the McCarthy report there has been time for an orgy of lobbying, letters to politicians, articles in the newspaper etc, in response to its proposals. If the NUI institutions did nothing on this, waiting by the phone for someone to call them perhaps, they had many opportunities to do much more.

    You are discrediting your correct drive towards a more open policy-making process on third level education in Ireland by not noticing that this change was in fact the result of an open policy-making process.


    • Otto, I understand your point, but the process you describe is not really the one I would want. In other words, the publication of a report followed by what you call ‘an orgy of lobbying’ (I like that phrase) is not a good method for policy-making. The McCarthy report itself was (and had to be) a quick exercise; it was not based on public consultations and discussion. The government itself made it clear that it would implement some, but not all, of its recommendations. Of course some recommendations don’t require intricate consultation processes. This one, however, has broader implications, and while I have no problem with the decision as such, the implications needed to be teased out.

      For better or for worse, the universities cannot put together such a consultation process unless the government agrees to participate – but in any case as it’s a government decision, that’s where the initiative needs to come from: a rule of good policy formulation is that those who want to decide undertake the consultation, not least because they are the only ones who know what they have in mind, or even whether they have anything in mind.

      There is another reason why such consultation matters. Until you undertake it, you don’t know what kind of response you’ll get to the actual decision. The worst thing you can do is to appear to be decisive and decide something, and then have to row back because of the outcry it causes. I don’t know if that will happen here, but it might.

  3. otto Says:

    “In a couple of months we expect a report from the steering group undertaking the strategic review of higher education. I would expect any recommendations in that report to be implemented only after consultation and an inclusive discussion. That is to say, I would hope that it will work that way, I am not now sure that I expect it.”

    Leaving your comments on NUI aside, looking forward to this Steering Group report, the obvious solution is for you as President of DCU to announce, on the date of publication of the report, an event where policy-makers and those from other universities will meet to discuss the Steering Group proposals one month after the report is published. There’s an element of passivity in your comments: it’s very much up to you to organise the consultation you ask for.


  4. It amazes me that in all the discussions of the merits of an American style super-university, with huge numbers of staff, students, publications, prizes etc. no-one mentions that we used to have one !
    Before the NUI officially split into 4 constituent colleges 10 years ago, it would have come very high on all those rankings that commentators are so fond of.
    I have never once heard the NUI mentioned in the discussion of one large Irish ‘world-class’ university for the future….not that support such a thing, but it’s interesting

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      But Cormac that’s just not true, the three NUI colleges didn’t feel like they were part of a single university, whatever the legal situation may have been. It didn’t feel like a single university and at a day-to-day level there was no more cooperation between the NUI colleges and no more effort to organize for complementary strengths, than there was between the NUI colleges and, for example, TCD. The US analog is the UC and there the ranking are given for the individual institutions within the UC system.

  5. cormac Says:

    True, but my point is that the number of publications, prizes, patents etc would be much higher….one of the reasons irish universities fare quite poorly in rankings is that many lists do not take size into account!

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      So Cormac, would a new UW have wanted to be in the NUI do you think?


    • Cormac, that’s highly arguable. In fact, the opposite may be true. We often now assume that size not accompanied by consistent quality works against you. Most league tables measure output relative to size. In fact, one of the most highly ranked universities anywhere, in the global top 10 – Caltech – is also one of the smallest. Also (I was recently told this but would need to verify it) none of the 1000 largest universities in the world is in the global top 500. At any rate, the assumption that size helps is very arguable indeed, which is why the current drive to push us all to amalgamate is such rubbish.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        An amusingly topic example of an excellent but very small institution is provide by LSE, whose chair is Peter Sutherland; in this case it is I think too small to be eligible for the THES rankings, though it always ranks very well in lists that include it. Excellence matters more than the THES ranks and the fact remains, the degree of amalgamation required to make the NUI count as a single university for the purpose of the THES rankings would have done enough damage and created a sufficiently clumsy and unlikely an institution as to make that eligibility moot.

  6. Iainmacl Says:

    Aoife. It depends how you measure excellence. The LSE is a really fascinating example of an institution that ranks highly in terms of prestige but very poorly indeed in teaching quality and student satisfaction. In fact in the first National Student Survey in the UK in 2005 it rated 107th out of 119 institutions for student satisfaction.

    It has recently climbed to about 76th in ranking. The primary complaints from students are that they never actually get taught by many of the research high-flyers nor do they get feedback on their work, etc. So it shows how you can have an institution that has a high international profile, lots of distinguished visiting speakers, fellows, etc and yet score badly in terms of the basic role of teaching students.

  7. Iainmacl Says:

    sorry that should be ‘student satisfaction with teaching quality’ rather than teaching quality AND student satisfaction

  8. belfield Says:

    The LSE is interesting in a number of other ways also – not least because so many forget about the ‘…and Political Science’ bit of it. I seem to remember that Sir Peter’s appointment met with considerable opposition from students and some sections of the staff – particularly those on the human rights, social inclusion and environmental side of the house. And I understand that considerable security precautions still need to be taken when he visits the college.
    Wouldn’t have thought that was the most impressive of provenances from which lessons in the running of a university could come.

  9. cormac Says:

    Ferdinand – I entirely agree with you on the principle of the thing, but I don’t agree with you on the particulars of the lists. What list features Caltech? I haven’t seen this, very interesting.

    Re NUI, the real advantage of the old system was that the standard of a degree in science (and, I think, other disciplines) was very much uniform in Cork, Galway, Maynooth and Belfield. This seems to me to be a much better system than the highs and lows of the American system

    Aoife should note there were 4, not 3, and Waterford would be very honoured indeed ti have joined thoses rans.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Sorry Cormac, I said three because there were three NUI Universities before it was restructured in 1997; I thought that 1997 was what you meant by 10 years ago, though of course it wasn’t! However, the facts remain, the NUI never had an identity abroad, before 1997 or after it, nor was it ever a close enough federation for the constituent colleges and universities to count as one in international rankings.

      I bet you anything that UW would not have jointed the NUI; you know that!


    • Caltech, my alma mater, features on the main top university lists in the world published in the USA, Britain, and China. (e.g., USA News and World Report, the Times, USA Today, the Global University Ranking, etc.).

      Even though Caltech has 900 undergrads, 1200 graduate students, and 300 tenured faculty it is typically ranked in the top 10 in every field in which it awards degrees and is #2 in the world on the Global University Ranking. Thus, size certainly does not equate to ranking.

      As far as abolishing the NUI, after being a faculty member for five years, I never could tell why the idea of it existed.


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