There it is again. Once again we are being told that we have too many higher education institutions. This is how the Irish Independent yesterday reported comments by Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA):

‘Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State’s third-level funding body has warned… Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally. Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation. The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.’

This topic has been covered in this blog before, but it may be worthwhile reiterating one or two key points.

First, it is impossible to say on what basis we would have ‘too many’ universities. As I pointed out previously, measured against the size of our population Ireland has fewer universities than most developed countries. Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In the most recent Times Higher Education global rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number 8 in the rankings, has 6,708 students, while Caltech at number 10 has only 2.245; both of these would therefore be smaller than any Irish university. The number 1 university, Harvard, is smaller than either UCD or TCD. In fact, not a single one of the global top 10 universities would, if in Ireland, be the largest institution. Conversely, not a single one of the world’s 100 largest universities features in the global rankings at all. In short, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that larger universities perform more strongly than smaller ones; if anything, the evidence goes the other way.

Thirdly, the history of university mergers is not helpful. Many of them have failed. Indeed, the only one of any note that took place over recent years that seems to have worked is the merger between the University of Manchester and UMIST, though even there it would be fair to say that the merger has not produced the improvement in the league tables that had been predicted. Most mergers cost a lot of money and take a long time to settle down, if indeed the merger succeeds at all.

The problem here is that we appear to be developing a national policy based on asserted benefits which are in fact totally unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. We need to ensure that these plans and ideas are subjected to proper scrutiny and not just blindly accepted.

All of this is annoying also because calls for mergers distract from the discussion, which I agree we should have, about the appropriate distribution of provision and the avoidance of duplication. Here too the case is not as simple as might at first appear. But I shall return to that in another post over the next few days.

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9 Comments on “Mergermania”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    There may be grounds for consolidating some of the colleges, the Tipperary one is small and expensive & was created for political reasons. Perhaps some of the teacher training could be rationalized. In general these institutions are probably catering for a local not a global market.
    But for the universities, the idea is daft. What possible advantages would there be from merging Cork & Galway? Or UCD and TCD? [where we have gone through enough re-structuring, thank you]. These shot-gun weddings would be expensive and generally painful. It would destroy morale which is not especially high these days.
    You may remember a recent EU study that you discussed, showed that Irish universities were pretty efficient on the teaching front.
    One has to wonder about Mr Boland’s expertise: is there any reason to believe he is an authority on universities?

  2. sally Says:

    This reminds me of the sort of problem mathematics / computer science / business studies undergraduates used to get in lectures on Operational Research, Cost / Benefit Analsis, Queueing Theory etc. Simple precedent and the notion of ‘critical mass’ seem rather intuitive categories on which to build an objective argument for these kinds of change. I suspect a deeper, more quantitative analysis would be of benefit here, and not beyond us. Isn’t that one of our roles as academics?

  3. Vincent Says:

    If the fixation is on mergers, why then destroy the NUI.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    It’s also a classic sign of both visionless leadership and financial impotence that when there are major issues facing a sector/company/organisation the ‘solution’ is re-structuring. Providing massive upheavals in organisation, management, internal systems, identity/brand, marketing, morale, student experience, contracts, partnerships, research, etc, is an utterly insane course of action and will burn up resources and people for at least a decade in a complete and utter waste of time, ensuring that the country slips even further behind in those beloved league tables.

    It’s a classic avoidance behaviour. If the government/HEA has genuine ambitions for Irish HE on the international stage then it cannot avoid the basic issue of funding. What characterises those institutions at the top of the tables is not just their small relative size (thought I would argue that that is absolutely vital since it creates a sense of belonging, agency and pride amongst staff and students) but also their level of financial resources.

    It is simply not possible to improve by merging universities into bigger units – that would be completely counter-productive and the money would be better spent on ‘frontline’ needs.

    You are being generous of course in mentioning Manchester as an example rather than London Met which is the ‘flagship’ of mergers!

  5. If the goal is to create globally competitive Universities, then surely the smart things to do is start by developing small, ’boutique’ institutions. Small student numbers, with a narrow subject domain in which they can expect to be globally significant I’m thinking of the LSE as a model. Once they establish their brand as the ‘go to’ place for whatever, you can link them to industry clusters and scale the numbers up.
    That requires some long term (25 years plus) strategic thinking, noting, as Ray Kurzweil said, that inventions need to make sense in the world where they are finished, not where they are started.

  6. Maestro Says:

    For once I find myself agreeing with Ferdinand!
    Look, we have a terrible history of mergers, consolidations, etc. in Ireland (HSE anyone?).

    I think that ‘management’, i.e. the HEA have shown their hand and the only sensible response is to vote down the Croke Park Agreement – I’m certainly not going to sign a blank-cheque on my career with this type of rationalisation being proposed.

  7. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    It would better to end unnecessary duplication across universities. In the past there was suggestions that each university would have a local mononpoly on some disciplines.

    This is partially in place already: UCD has the Veterinarian school , TCD has the Dentistry school.

    But it needs to be brought further. Surely there is justification for only one Classical Studies, Economic, Politics department between the two universities. Let one have a college of social sciences, and let the other have a school of languages.

  8. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    Interestingly Tom Boland discussed the summer break.

    I feel that the long summer break is not sustainable in the current economic climate. Ireland needs its third level sector to transform it’s skill bases, as a matter of urgency. Therefore colleges should start running courses during the summer.

    However, a different approach should be taken. I propose that the model be a semester (trimester, rather) be structured about one or two week courses i.e. “block weeks”.

    Academics would have to teach courses, but it would also give them an opportunity to take courses, and to develop their own skills base.

    The Network Maths program ( ) can be used as a template. World class lecturers come over to Ireland for a week or two to teach.

    Another benefit would be that a more comprehensive maths program could be run during the summer, allowing the mature students more opportunity to attain the maths skills they need.

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