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.