Would you like a ‘super-university’?

A couple of days ago I wrote on Peter Sutherland’s address at the Royal Irish Academy, in which he was reported to have asked whether Ireland could afford to maintain seven world class universities. It may be worth mentioning briefly his other, related, point (according to the report in the Sunday Independent): that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. This is how the report quotes him:

‘Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”‘

One must always allow for the possibility that the report was not totally accurate, and in any case it has to be said that Peter Sutherland, one Irish person with real standing internationally, often goes out of his way to make a case for Irish higher education more generally. In any case, what he is reported to have said has been said by others, and has since the 1960s and maybe before been a regular topic of conversation in Irish academic circles. In 1967 a merger between the two colleges was proposed by then then Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley. It is interesting to reproduce more fully an account (published in an article by Thomas E. Nevin the journal Studies in 1985) of that proposal.

A Commission set up by the government had proposed that the NUI Colleges should become independent universities (this may sound familiar). But before this could be seriously considered the following took place:

‘The Provost of TCD and the President of UCD were called to the Department of Education by Mr O’Malley and told that he was rejecting the Commission recommendation. He told them that the Government proposed to establish a new single University of Dublin with UCD and TCD as Colleges; that there should be one University of Dublin to contain two Colleges each as far as possible complementary to the other, the University to own all the property of the Colleges; and that there should be no unnecessary duplication of staff, buildings or equipment.’

Asa we know it proved impossible to implement this proposal, but from time to time the idea is resurrected, and usually gets a fairly negative response in one or both colleges. Last year’s establishment by them of their ‘Innovation Alliance’ probably represents what for both college heads was the most that they could easily deliver. Whether Peter Sutherland’s comments will drive this agenda any further is, I imagine, doubtful. In the meantime, the suggestion itself must also serve to increase tensions between the two colleges in question and the rest of the Irish university sector.

But why do it anyway? What would a merger achieve that is unattainable by other means, such as a strategic partnership? Indeed, how would a planned merger overcome what is now known internationally to be the complex set of problems that accompany such initiatives and that have made many of them fail, often before they are fully implemented? Peter Sutherland is now mainly based in London, the place where the planned merger of Imperial College and University College London – which was intended to create the ‘world’s number one university’ – ultimately failed. University mergers require a convergence of institutional cultures and an acceptance by the communities of both institutions that they will gain from the initiative; in an academic environment this is very hard to achieve.

It is clear to me that the level of coordinated strategic cooperation between Irish universities – both sector-wide and in sub-groups – meeds to improve dramatically over the short to medium term. But ironically the chance of that succeeding will be impeded by pushing merger proposals and similar initiatives, which will if pursued divert energies from where they are now most urgently needed.

And in addition, as I noted in the previous post, it is far from clear that the size of a university makes a whole lot of difference. In the end it is quality that counts.

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12 Comments on “Would you like a ‘super-university’?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Doubtful ?. I suspect that given who made the comments that gears were stripped slamming whatever motion in that direction into reverse.
    And every time I hear his name, Thatcherite Tory pops up under Politics in my version of Who’s who. While I edit the entry, it never sticks.

  2. Donal_C Says:

    It seems to me that there’s an overemphasis on the supposed indicators of quality rather than substantive performance. This becomes especially apparent when Sutherland refers to the THES rankings. The THES rankings rely to a large extent on perceptual data in the form of peer review (“Name the top 30 institutions in your area”). Greater size could put some institutions onto the radar screen and, controlling for history and substantive performance, is likely to influence ranking positions. Though some smaller, specialist institutions like Caltech do well, these are exceptions.
    A word of caution… If a merger goes ahead, be careful with the name. I was looking recently for some information on the Helsinki School of Economics, only to discover that it has been renamed Aalto University School of Economics after the merger of three university-level institutions in Helsinki. In case you’re wondering, Aalto was a Finnish architect.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    I was living and working in Australia when the so-called ‘Dawkins reforms'(John Dawkins was the Federal Labour Government minister of Education at the time) were implemented (1987). All HE institutions were to be deemed universities and a matchmaking process then ensued where the following occured:

    a) all existing universities merged with local colleges and institutes (similar to our ITs)to form bigger and broader institutions
    b) the larger urban institutes of technology rebadged themselves Universities of Technology
    c) some rural/regional colleges combined to form multi-campus universities
    d) as far as I can remember there was no merger of any existing universities

    This was, I think, a fairly successful exercise, helped along by the injection of substantial additional resources from the new HECS deferred fees scheme and a substantial programme of investment in buildings &c.

    There was (at least) one subsequent divorce involving a university and a college. The ultimate hierarchy of institutions remained fairly unchanged, with some rejigging around the middle order (my sojourn down under left me open to cricketing metaphors, I’m afraid). Some of the more remote colleges ended up rather bereft of partners and went it alone.

    Eventually the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) sector moved in to occupy some of the space left behind in sub-degree and degree level education in vocational areas.

    Nearly 25 years later (and I’m amazed it has taken this long) we in Ireland are faced with a similar turning point, perhaps. I would be interested to know what people think some of the outcomes might be – and we may as well speculate until the long-awaited Hunt Report appears!

    I have seen little public discussion on the merits or otherwise of, for example:

    mergers between universities and ITs in an urban area: ie UL and LIT, or NUIG and GMIT, UCC and CIT . . .

    mergers between ITs into networked multi-campus entities (eg ITS, GMIT, LYIT into a ‘North/West university or institute)

    conversion of the largest urban ITs (DIT, CIT) into technological universities (like RMIT in Melbourne)

    strategic mergers of universities and ITs in different places into multi-campus entities (eg DCU, DKIT and ITB; NUIM, AIT and ITS; UL, LIT and IT Tralee &c &c)

    You could come up with all sorts of productive and unproductive outcomes. But I don’t see any of this being discussed anywhere much. Some of the collaboration that came out of the Strategic Innovation Fund [SIF] (eg the ‘Shannon consortium)’may indeed presage some moves along these lines.

    Any ideas?


    • Perry, as far as I can see we are headed for strategic clustering, involving a nucleus of university partners with IoT affiliates and partners. Not unlike the model you set out, but perhaps with each involving more than one university.

      • Perry Share Says:

        If this is indeed the case, then there is much to discuss about how it might work in practice and in principle. For example in terms of rationalisation of programmes and courses; the development of shared services; the alignment of pay and conditions; even the names of the ‘clusters’.

        Will there be additional resources to support the required interaction at various levels between institutions, or will this be top-sliced from existing budgets, as with the SIF? Will we see weaker institutions asset-stripped of their best staff and courses by the stronger ones?

        Will clusters be geographically or functionally based? And will there be some sort of logic behind it all? Or will we be looking at HSE Mk. 2?

        As Cormac says below, so many questions, questions!

  4. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Merging TCD and UCD is pointless; neither will gain and apart from a few specific professional schools, what either has that the other lacks comes down to ethos, something that can’t be shared. However, there could be sensible mergers in Dublin between institutions that differ more, in fact Ferdinand himself has moved successfully in working to bring DCU and St Pats Drumcondra closer together.

    A good example of a potential merger would be TCD and DIT; Dublin’s two urban universities. If NCAD was included, a merged University would have a wider and richer role and be more effective at facilitating more complex learning and research demand; it might be difficult at first restructuring the entire ensemble into different colleges, academies and schools and it would take many years to co-locate people working in similar areas in one of what would be two campuses along with the NCAD site, however it would be possible, with some commonsense and good planning.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    There might be advantages in having one world class university in the country but I think the other universities would be right to be concerned. It would be sending a strong signal that they were second rate. This would be bad for morale, make it difficult for them to attract staff, raise money etc.
    A lot of the gains can probably be made by bilateral or multilateral agreements, joint programs etc, without some cumbersome merger.


    • Actually, I don’t disagree that we should have a world class university, or indeed more than one. I just doubt that a forced merger or even preferential treatment for one or more does that. The yardstick of ‘world class’ is excellence, and in fact having priority access to resources often breeds laziness. I also agree that structured collaboration is an important way of achieving excellence.

  6. belfield Says:

    In educational terms there’s much to be gained from closer and more sincere connections and collaboration across the universities. Particularly in terms of constructing action around inclusion which I think we are starting to see happen – slowly and in subtle ways but with increasing effect. However, talk about subtlety and gradual cultural realignment runs against the grain of the times. ‘That lot’ finally getting what’s been long coming might, unfortunately, be closer to the zeitgeist.
    As for learning lessons from elsewhere, that assumes policy learning. Which we seem to do with all the elegance of a flying penguin.

  7. cormac Says:

    what really is are the practical advantages of having a ‘world-class’ university? funding? students?
    is it realistic for a tiny country to aspire to this standard?
    or should we concentrate on having good, solid universities that give a large number of students a good education? questions, questions

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      It is easier to do great work in a world class university, easier to get visitors, seminar speakers, easier to be taken seriously, easier to get data from other people, just easier and we all want to do great research work.

  8. cormac Says:

    Even at WIT we’ve never had any problem getting the speakers we want. Even amateur organisations like Astronomy Ireland get world-class speakers once a month, no problem.
    As regards research funding, almost all funding depends nowadays on the particular group, not the institution – for example the most well-funded computing group in Ireland isn’t an any of the universities, it’s in WIT..
    .
    I’m wondering what you role in irish academia is Aoife, are you really speaking from experience?


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