Peter Sutherland and the Irish universities

Following recent reports on his comments about the Irish university system, Peter Sutherland has now written a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times correcting these reports, or at any rate some interpretations of his comments.

In his letter he denies suggesting that Ireland needed fewer universities, but rather says that we ‘cannot have seven world class comprehensive universities’. He proposes that there should be ‘a small number of comprehensive research universities’, and that the rest should specialise in certain subject areas where they can have critical mass or should see themselves as regional institutions.

There may be something in what he says, although I suspect that most would read such comments as supporting a two or even three-tier system of higher education. In some ways it would not be logical for me to complain, since DCU does not see itself as a ‘comprehensive’ university, though we would certainly not accept that we are in a lower league from any other Irish university, including the universities of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4.

I guess it also is connected somewhat with the concept of ‘world class’, a description which is perhaps used too freely and without much objective meaning, beyond perhaps suggesting a place in a particular range of the global university rankings. But it would be right, I suspect, to look more closely at what Peter Sutherland is saying here, and to ask whether we need to consider what mission each of the Irish universities has or should have.

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5 Comments on “Peter Sutherland and the Irish universities”

  1. iain Says:

    As you say, its the distinction between ‘comprehensive’ and specialist that is the issue here. Far better to have a system that is composed of institutions with complementary missions and specialisms rather than a set of leagues. In our institution for example our research strategy identifies 5 key areas of specialism/expertise for research. Similarly other institutions are looking to their particular strengths/priority areas. Where there is common ground there should be no difficulty (in theory!) in having multi-institutional collaboration. That helps to view the system as a whole and also builds in an element of resilience for future developments and change.

  2. Stephen Says:

    It seems most universities and third level institutions use the term “world-class” these days, and in most cases loosely. It seems as though this cliche buzz word has become devoid of value – one would expect that universities would have excellent facilities. “World class” suggests unrivalled and in most instances, facilities can be comparable and must remain so if a university is to be considered credible in whichever field it aspires to excel in.

  3. Iain Says:

    Stephen, it’s probably because they have worn out the word ‘excellence’ and have to scale up….grade inflation!

  4. Vincent Says:

    What we have at the moment is Seven very good universities. Where inside them are many cutting edge departments. If, say, you were to pull all of those departments together with no duplication, how many Universities would we end up with. I suspect we could manage four, just about. Where what would remain would still be very good.
    Where else can say this.
    Who, nowadays, in the UK will refuse the Mark of any Irish University, or the States. Or anyplace else for that matter.
    Basically I believe that many are missing the issue, which is one of perception not fact, size or class, world or otherwise.
    So, a huge marketing campaign like the one for Kerrygold until Ireland and Excellent University is as interchangeable as Kerrygold and butter. Remembering that all the Co-Op’s joined up behind that brand.

  5. Aidan Cooney Says:

    I find your articles on NUI very interesting and insightful. Peter Sutherland recent comments show a complete ignorance and smacks of D4 elitism in UCD. As a committee member of the NUI London Club, we are a graduate group of NUI and other institutions who meet and socialize in London. The club dates to 1920 but it has a simple aim, connect graduates of NUI with academic departments in NUI. Since 1920s, things have changed among graduates of NUI, other Universities in Ireland and the emergence of the Institute of Technology structures. But graduates from all these campuses have a real interest to meet under a common banner of an Irish graduate community. Our own committee exists of of UCD and UCC, with members from TCD / DCU / WIT / NUI Galway.

    If the Irish academic community and business leaders, view the graduates in terms of just UCD or DCU, they miss out on opportunities of mixing minds and academic departments in various inter-varsity events in London, which reflect the rich and diverse community of Irish graduates in Ireland. Minister O’Keffee has taken the right move but wrong path. NUI was a great brand name and this office should have been expanded to incorporate all Irish University franchises in NUI and ITs. In doing so, University Alumni could have worked together and ensure Irish graduates give a good impression of 3rd & 4th level Irish graduates.

    As an NUI graduate (UCC 2005) and a post-graduate University of London (King’s College and Institute of Education), I see a parallel between the NUI and University of London University franchise. Within the UoL community, Universities like UCL / King’s College / Birbeck / Institute of Education all work together under a clear brand name. NUI is the Irish equivalent, the name was to clear and marketable. To ditch this for some new aged marketing muck, you just invite ridicule on the international. Ditching NUI was a UCC V UCD spat but the reality both campuses are way down the leagues to UCL and King’s but do we see them ditching the University of London brand?


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