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.