Does it matter how many universities we have?

Over the past two years or so, one of the under-currents of debate on Irish higher education has been the assertion that the country has too many universities. This claim appeared in the government’s 2008 paper, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, and has since been repeated from time to time by various commentators. As I have pointed out previously, this is a very debatable claim, and if anything Ireland has fewer universities for every thousand of the population than almost any other comparable country.

One interesting comparison might be our Celtic neighbours in Wales. The population of Wales is about 1 million smaller than that of Ireland, but it has 11 universities to Ireland’s seven. Now, however, the Welsh funding agency (the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) has suggested that this number should be reduced to six, and the Education Minister Leighton Andrews has told universities they must ‘adapt or die’.

The basis of this Welsh policy perspective appears to be that universities, to be internationally competitive, must have critical mass in income – measured against the median university income in England. This argument would need to be developed a little further before it would convince me; it is clear enough that resources need to be adequate to develop strong academic performance, but this should be measured against specific subject areas  and student numbers rather than the overall institutional position. Nor is it clear to me that a higher-income multi-campus university – particularly where those campuses are widely dispersed – is at any kind of advantage over a somewhat smaller single-campus institution.

There are good reasons for analysing much more closely what it is that makes a university viable. The answers lie in its strategic purpose, its inter-imnstitutional links and partnerships, its non-state revenues, its market position, and so forth.  How many universities there are in the country is a relatively uninteresting factor in the analysis, and governments and their agencies should stop obsessing about it.

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9 Comments on “Does it matter how many universities we have?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I believe, and this for marketing reasons, it would be far easier to deal with fewer. This being a simple brand management exercise. Call it the Kerrygolding of the sector.
    As the the number of them. On the face of it it hardly matters. Until that is you realize that for each coin spent on admin it’s a coin not spend on core function. But there has to be some sort of diminishing return on this. Where the larger body having swallowed the smaller there then is required more people to run the enlarged result.
    All the same I cannot get over the feeling that this is a small-minded penny pinching exercise. And while undoubtedly there are visible insanities in the system, the residence or Presidential Palace, is defiantly one of them. And anyway is anyone living in that dark monstrosity on Dame St, for that’s where the rest of the Brothers are drawing their Que. What was the cost in Limerick again.
    Anyhoos, on the branding in both Wales and here that Kerrygold idea isn’t half bad. And as with Kerrygold, anyone in the Avonmore area or Dairy Gold would tell you quick smart where to go if you made such an error in category. And they should just get on with getting rid of the historic stupidities built up over yonks. But rather that trumpet these actions the better idea would be do it and shut up about it. Then when some git is wheeled out to comment critically, you have the answer of that’s ancient history.
    I still maintain you as a sector need to speak with one voice, a voice that carries a blade in his mortarboard.

  2. otto Says:

    It does sometimes seem that ‘merger’ is the only tool in the box as far as some discussions of improving universities are concerned.

  3. Al Says:

    I don’t think the Welsh example is a fair comparison to the Irish situation, considering the population mass over the border.
    It’s not so much that we have too many uni’s, its the duplication and homogenisation that occurs.
    We have a wierd prisoners dilemma occuring where the
    risk of specialisations are avoided and everyone plays it safe delivering bread and butter stuff.
    it is probably more a reflection on the interrogator that he can’t get investment maximization from the prisoners than the prisoners themselves.


  4. This a question that can be addressed only after we’ve discussed and decided their purpose.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    The argument for rationalization is based on the notion that there are significant economies out there i.e. economies of scale or scope. Maybe, maybe not but I don’t think that has been demonstrated not can it simply be assumed.
    It seems likely that the scope for rationalisation varies across discipline. Maybe in subjects where there are big fixed costs (such as labs) it would be good to merge them but in low cost areas like many humanities subjects its very doubtful that there is much advantage cost-wise.
    Having one history department of 20 might be better than two of 10 each in terms of a wider set of courses but there is also some cost in having a university where the students don’t have the choice of studying a subject.
    So this is all about rationalising individual departments. But are we talking about actual universities? So say we merge DCU and TCD or UL and NUIG then you may save on admin’ costs but often these mergers are painful and not especially cheap. So I think one needs a very clear idea of why one should pursue this strategy with realistic estimates of what the gains will be.

  6. James Says:

    For me the number of universities is largely irrelevent provided they offer a broad range of subject choices. The problem, in my opinion, is that we have too many universities offering virtually identical degrees. Fine if they’re privately funded, but not if the taxpayer is picking up the tab.


    • James, Let’s assume that you are right. Now, why is a bad thing acceptable if privately funded but not acceptable if publicly funded?

      • kevin denny Says:

        Colum, isn’t it obvious? Publicly funded means funded by someone else i.e. not the consumer/student whatever. What you spend your money on is your business. So if you want to spend your money on gold-plated toothbrushes, fine. But if your education or your toothbrushes are being paid for by someone else [i.e. the tax payer] then it is a matter of public policy.

      • James Says:

        Colum,

        Well it’s not a question of right or wrong but of cost. I simply think it makes little financial sense for the taxpayer to pay for multiple universities to offer the same degrees, particularly if those universities are geographically separated by a few miles. Have a look at science degrees in the Dublin universities – pretty much the same degrees, with the same course content, and about the same entry requirements and CAO cut offs.

        If students are paying for their education within entirely privately funded institutions, then I don’t care how many there. If someone wants to set up 50 different private Business schools, as long as the taxpayer isn’t paying for them, my attitude is let them.

        If we merged departments and reduced the number of universities, would the education of students suffer? I’m not sure that it would at the moment because of the similarity of degrees. It might change commuting times though …


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