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.

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13 Comments on “How many universities should we have?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    If you look at the US, France and UK, the countries I am familar with, there is a huge variation in quality (however defined). That is no reason to close any of them down or merge. Some variation is natural. Moreover I doubt if there is any country where all universities are “world class”, whatever that means. So while there may be some economies of scale and scope, 7 doesn’t seem excessive to me. There may be arguments for merging in particular areas: I am not convinced we need 6 medical schools for example.

  2. Vincent Says:

    What does this mean anyway, this World Class. Is it that you have the Admin and structure or is it that you have the Boffins. If it is the 2nd then there is nothing more certain that whoever it is on whatever it is will be out of date very soon. And then what.
    The people the Rainmaker was instructing are equally out of date.
    For this past 20 years there has been way to much focus on teaching the current or the next in some belief that a ten year career is a good thing. When in reality what is happening is that the 80s economic big idea of cheap labour has lifted a bit.
    What we need is to have the existing Seven to think in terms of Atmosphere. That they have whatever they need. And that you de-couple yourselves from the Civil Service, and the strictures of the Dept of Finance.
    But, to be really honest, if given the choice between the Wineries North of the Golden Gate, the mountains East, the beaches, the Sun FGS. And here, except Galway. All things being equal that 10 degrees matter.
    Further if you are looking healthy surf-types the best tool you have is that wave under the cliff at Moher, and it is not another lab you would need but a ‘chopper to carry them from Dublin to Lahinch or Cleggan.
    Lifestyles the thing, you will never outdo Oxbridge for the twee, nor Harvard for the money. But there is only so much any Uni lab can have as standard. And I really doubt your fixtures and fittings differ negatively from anything at UC Berkeley, or anyplace else.

  3. Iainmacl Says:

    Quite simply, its a nonsense statement. But interestingly enough the institution with which he is affiliated in the UK, the LSE, is trying a similar argument there, forming a ‘G5’ grouping of self-nominated elite institutions which are asking the government for increased funding and concentration of resources on themselves! So far that offer hasn’t been taken up, but its interesting to see. Of course as a major figure in the WTO there is also a strong ideological component that sees education as an internationally tradable commodity. However, there’s an inconsistency running through this in that they depend not on market forces but on significant government intervention and manipulation to develop the system.

    The other frustration for the elite institutions in the UK is that over time, the instrument they developed to justify the concentration of research funds into their pockets is not working totally to their benefit. There are now more researchers and groups scattered across the country demonstrating ‘international’ ratings on their research and hence competing for funds. Such is the context for recent calls there from politicians to concentrate research on a smaller number of institutions. In other words, reject the evidence if it runs counter to your prejudice.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Iain: Education is an internationally tradeable service whether one likes it or not & has been for centuries. Pretty much everyone is in favour ‘though: the sending countries, the receiving countries, the universities. Internationalization of education and research brings huge benefits.Whats not to like? So I don’t see what ideology has to do with it. It would be a strange ideology that was against something that was mutually beneficial.
      Anyway, while the trend towards greater internationalization certainly has benefited from governemnt intervention it is by no means immune to market forces: you cannot force people to study abroad. Moreover employers seem to value employees with an international education- depending on where from obviously. Those are forces on the demand side. On the supply side, universities both public and private put a value, financially and otherwise,on getting foreign students. So, in fact, market forces are pretty important in this game.

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    Kevin, perhaps your response conflates ‘internationalisation’ with ‘commodification’ and the latter is the point I was averring to as well as the issue that many have questioned: what the nature and purpose of education is and how the definitions are narrowed by a market based view of the world. One that is not universally welcomed by many countries, in fact, when it often in the past has meant cultural imperialism, homogenisation and the removal of funding for programmes that are not seen to fulfil a specific commercial training requirement. That’s all.

  5. cormac Says:

    Ferdinand, I agree with that post and here is another point:
    An overlooked advantage of the old NUI system of small colleges 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 fairer system for undergraduates, and much healthier than the highs and lows of the differing colleges of the American system.
    Even without the NUI-type umbrella, it seems more likely that it would be easier to keep standards reasonably level in smakller colleges. Whatever happened to good, solid standard, as opposed to ‘world-class’ nonsense?

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Cormac, I don’t believe the standard of a science degree was any more uniform across the NUI than between NUI colleges and other Irish universities and, as for good and solid: there is no fun in that, I work in the academy to do something great!

      As for the idea of deciding to merge universities: Peter Sutherland must know that in business 50% of mergers destroy value and only 25% create it, the figures are surely worse for universities and there is no real reason to believe that merging UCD and TCD would produce a university that was any better than its constituent parts. Nor, as Ferdinand points out, are large universities usually better.

      However, one thing that is required to have a great university is a national system that allows an unequal distribution of resources, I am sure that is all that Peter meant and that he expects the consequence of that to be that Ireland has less than seven Universities who aim to have world-class research across a broad range of subjects, but that we would continue to have at other, locally significant institutions, with, perhaps, a number of world class groups, as happens in other countries.

  6. greg Says:

    The depressing thing about Peter Sutherland’s article is that it continues the long tradition in this country of obsessing about structures. This happens in Health, Education and Enterprise where policy makers ‘solution’ to the current problem is always to rearrange the various state agencies involved. In Education, our foucs needs to be on what is going on in the class room / lecture theatre. The key problem as I see, based on many years in the third level sector, is that students do not understand – or even know – the basics, whether it be algebra or English grammar. Without this understanding, there is no chance that they will become creative thinkers and problem solvers. Rote learning is their only way to get through the system. Something is going wrong somewhere, apparently at first and second level, but perpetuated at third level. That’s whay it is so depressing to hear the same old arguments about structures.

  7. Iainmacl Says:

    Good point , Greg. It’s that old cliche about Titanic and deck chairs!

  8. Perry Share Says:

    I would have to say (wouldn’t I) that Sutherland’s condescending reference to ‘Ballygobackwards RTCs’ was also unhelpful. It would be interesting to know if he has ever been in an Institute of Technology, particularly one outside of the Pale.

  9. cormac Says:

    Aoife, I disagree. Certainly as regards science, externs from abroad often remark that degrees across Ireland are very much of a uniform standard and a good standard at that.
    This has been traditionally attributed to Trinity’s past relationship with Cambridge,a standard that the NUI colleges had to keep up to. This in turn set the standard for other colleges that emerged.
    Admittedly, this is only in science – but i do know this from the many foreign colleagues of my late father and my own work as an extern in Ireland

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      I amn’t sure this actually disagrees with my claim
      “I don’t believe the standard of a science degree was any more uniform across the NUI than between NUI colleges and other Irish universities”.

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