Universities and the avoidance of duplication

In recent debates on higher education, a question that has repeatedly been asked is whether there is too much duplication within the Irish university system. In other words, the question is being asked whether the existence of the same or similar programmes of study or research in different universities represents a wasteful inefficiency that should be brought to an end. This is how the issue is put in the submission to the higher education strategic review by the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC):

‘To achieve [internationally recognised] status, the core focus should be on differentiation and excellence in unique areas of academia and research and by implication avoidance of duplication of courses and research.  Such a strategy reflects government priorities within the Smart Economy strategy and within the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation.  The perception of business is that inflating student numbers within HEIs has taken precedence over striving for excellence. This may have eroded quality within the sector over recent years.  There is a need for some institutions to become more practically focused on science and technology, by delivering more emphasis on high quality practical experiments and that, this experience takes place as part of the course.  A specific recommendation is where a duplication of faculties across different HEIs in close proximity occurs, that a merger should take place to create one shared faculty.  This would be most relevant where the faculties are small and where there would be obvious practical and administrative benefits.’

Similar points have been made by others. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) itself, in its submission to the review, suggested the following:

‘Light touch regulation has also resulted in unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; ‘mission creep’; inflexible staffing structures and practices; and a set of institutions which to a very great extent stand apart and aloof from each other. Collectively, our higher education institutions represent a very valuable national resource and it is imperative for Ireland’s economic and social development that its full potential be realised.’

There are a few questions that should be asked in relation to such analysis. First, are these statements factually correct – in other words, is there really a level of wasteful duplication of the kind being suggested? Secondly, even if this is the case, what is the remedy? Can a solution be applied that does not violate the principle of institutional autonomy? In so far as these comments suggest that the state or its agencies should produce a solution, who exactly should make the judgement about what provision amounts to duplication and how this could be resolved?

None of these questions are actually easy to answer. Even the factual one – i.e., whether there is duplication – is tricky. For example, I think all Irish universities have an engineering department, school or Faculty. Should there only be one? Or should there be several, but each one focusing on a different sub-set of engineering? If so, how do students gain an initial overall grounding in engineering? And who decides which institution should do what? The latter question raises the autonomy principle – can this question be addressed at all by anyone other than the universities themselves?

It may be that what is in people’s minds may be that where there are subjects that might be described as attracting minority interest only – let us say, Italian, or Russian, or forestry – that these should only be offered by one or a small number of universities. But again, who decides?

It seems to me that these are complex matters, though I would agree that they need to be addressed, and the universities need to engage in active discussions with each other about it. But, in my opinion at least, the worst possible way of addressing them would be to bureaucratise the issue, and to have some central agency taking decisions about the ‘correct’ distribution of subject areas. Apart from the likelihood that such a centralised approach will get it wrong, it would also mean the end of the notion of autonomous universities that can develop their own strategic priorities, and the initiation of a centrally planned and organised university system on a Soviet Communist model. I don’t believe that one was a winner.

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10 Comments on “Universities and the avoidance of duplication”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Lets remember that duplication per se, is not a bad thing because, in fact competition is generally a good thing. We have lots of “duplication” in the restaurant sector or the hotel sector or… take your pick: would you prefer to have just one of each? Lets all dine out at the National Restaurant of Ireland.
    That aside [for the moment], there are circumstances under which it makes sense to have fewer establishments. Broadly speaking, these are economies of scale [when its more efficient to do more of the same in one place rather than two] and economies of scope [when its more efficient to combine different activities or functions under one roof]. Generally, these economies derive from there being some big fixed cost that you need to have like a laboratory. So maybe having two departments of nuclear physics is a bad idea if each needs some fancy atom-smasher.
    One fixed cost is a person. Its not practical to split someone up [‘though you might be tempted at times] so departments of one or two people don’t seem very sensible. I had assumed that there would be economies of scale in say medicine so the decision to increase the number of medical students by increasing the number of medical schools seemed, shall we say, odd.
    But for lots of disciplines, particularly in the Arts & Humanities its less clear that there are these big fixed costs once you get beyond having silly little departments. A typical “fixed cost” is the admin’ staff but even there it is possible to share within an institution.
    A further complication is that there are important interactions between disciplines within a university: closing the maths department [for example] down in one place would cause problems for many disciplines. Even having the odd philosopher around is not a bad thing. One of the good things about our universities is the choice they offer a student. The benefits of having institutions compete is not just some theoretical vagary: think about the intellectual dullness that arises from simply having one “Academy”.
    So I don’t think we should rush into consolidation and quite frankly: what the hell does IBEC know about universities? Are they against competition in their own sectors?

  2. iainmacl Says:

    It may be that rather than describing the situation within and between universities, those who prepared the submissions are referring to the extent to which there is duplication in the same geographic area by IoTs and universities. There are examples of courses being developed in neighbouring institutions that mirror or directly copy programmes in another rather than developing, for example, articulation and transfer schemes, or sets of mutually complementary programmes. But then again, Kevin’s point about competition is still valid. It seems ironic that once again we have those who champion market values preferring instead cosy cartels, or perhaps that is how business is done in this country??

  3. Jilly Says:

    Like the previous two posts, I’m also fascinated by the way in which on the one hand we’re told that universities should operate like businesses, and be competitive with each other, and then on the other hand be told that this results in ‘duplication’. The lack of clear thought or reasoning behind these statements is perhaps the most alarming aspect of them. All the more reason for Kevin’s (very grudging!) allowance of a place for philosophers, perhaps?!

    • kevin denny Says:

      Jilly, I was being droll: I really think there is a place for philosophy and it would be a very sad day if the university was to lose that capacity. My guess [without really knowing about the subject] is that in a subject like philosophy you don’t need a big critical mass, a department of 10 or 15 could be effective so there is no reason to close such departments.And there is nothing to stop departments linking up for PhD programs for example.

  4. Brendan Says:

    The Fottrell report when recommending the increased number of medical school places specifically recommended against increasing the number of medical schools. So, yes the opening of the medical school in Limerick was “odd” and one day the full story as to why that happened will be told, but not voluntarily and not soon I would guess.
    There is no economic argument for teaching medicine (and some other health related disciplines) outside Dublin. There may be some ‘social’ arguments but they are all fallacious. The same is true of law and some of the other professions. In fact, shutting down the teaching of medicine (and law etc) would not only save money, it would result in an immeasurably better education for the students and a far better environment for staff and their associated research. While any one particular institution or region might lose the ‘prestige’ of having a professional degree course, the country as a whole would benefit enormously.
    So what is most likely to happen? Consolidation which is in the best interests of economy, education and research or duplication, decentralization and pandering to local and sectoral interests? Hmmmmmmmmm.

  5. iainmacl Says:

    Whilst not disagreeing with your point about the addition of an extra new medical school (which at the time someone in government reportedly stated, was a response to the ‘cosy cartel’, hence my earlier comment), the extension of the argument to propose the total centralisation of all professions to Dublin is no doubt intended as an amusingly provocative statement rather than a serious proposal. Or do you envision us all moving to the capital, perhaps, living in shanty towns on the outskirts, feeding off the scraps cast aside by those in Dublin 4 and travelling into the city centre by the truckload to provide tutorials to students in the one surviving ‘national’ university?

    • Brendan Says:

      Not the total centralization of ALL professions. But take medicine for example. A medical student in UCC (or any other medical school) spends some time on campus and lots of time on attachment in one or other teaching hospital in the catchment area. I am simply suggesting that the ‘campus’ component of their education be centralized on one or two campuses in Dublin whose ‘catchment’ area for teaching hospitals is the whole country. All in all a much better system from an educational, organisational and financial standpoint.
      We have an obsession in this country with regional geography and we forget just how small the country really is. In terms of population we approximate a mid sized city but insist that every borough and hamlet is entitled to the same facilities as the only substantial city in the country, Dublin.
      And in case you missed it much of the country (population wise) has already moved to shanty towns on the outskirts (Naas, Sallins, Maynooth, etc etc)and travel into the centre to work. Given that the captains of industry, banking, the professions etc all live in D4 I guess that’s the equivalent of living off their scraps.
      And if you dislike washing the bog off your boots so much, you need not travel to the city at all. You could always give your tutorials by videolink, videoskype, Google video or any of those other fancy interweb tools 😉

      • kevin denny Says:

        I think we definitely need to support the people huddled in the favelas of Maynooth, Celbridge & the like. 🙂

  6. Mike Scott Says:

    Reality check! To what extent was there ever really competition betwen the Universities in Ireland, as the term competition would be understood in the private sector? Each university’s advertising campaign coyly avoids mentioning the existance of the other universities, never mind informing the potential consumer as to our specific advantages with respect the competition. And surely joint membership of the “cosy cartel” IUA club makes robust private-sector-style competition unlikely.

    • kevin denny Says:

      We compete for students, thats what the CAO system does. You don’t have to thrash the opposition in your marketing to do that. We compete for research grants though I think the powers that be prefer “strategic” bids for PRTLI i.e. collusion. We compete for staff though we are competing with hundreds of other universities too.

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