How many universities should we have?
I see that Peter Sutherland has entered the debate, such as it is, on how many universities would be just right for Ireland. According to a report in Saturday’s Irish Times, he told a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy that ‘Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education and training levels.’ He thus joins the chorus of voices who have made similar claims, including the government in the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued in December 2008.
As long term readers of this blog (bless you) will know, we’ve discussed this subject previously. There is in fact very little empirical evidence to support the contention that any particular number, large or small, of universities is right for any particular country. There is some evidence, as it happens, that maintaining high levels of quality is easier in smaller universities than in large ones, and in fact very few (if any) of the world’s largest universities appear in the global rankings.
The other disadvantage of assertions about the allegedly excessive number of Irish universities is that they take the focus away from something that does matter, how the various universities interact with each other. Suggesting that universities might have to merge or be closed makes them defensive and suspicious, just as they should be opening up to closer collaboration with others. So the best thing we can do is probably to ignore such calls (and hope that others do, too) and get on with the agenda of strategic collaboration.