The university numbers game

Last week Sean Flynn, Education Editor of the Irish Times, wrote in the newspaper that ‘fewer universities with one big brand leader known as the University of Ireland would make sense.’ Today the same paper published my regular column in which I suggest (though not in response specifically to Sean) that ‘the assertion that we have too many colleges doesn’t stand up to serious analysis.’

The problem with this debate is that it has started to have a mesmerising effect on those taking policy decisions, and not just in Ireland. In the United Kingdom a number of mergers are either being contemplated, or are being implemented, or are being forced on the system. There are various merger conversations taking place in other countries also. And it is far from clear that any of this serves any purpose. This is not to say that mergers are always wrong, but they should be planned from the perspective of wanting to maximise the impact of institutions who are able to blend what they offer and strengthen their opportunities by doing so. Starting from some sort of daft policy assumption that mergers are necessary could end in disaster, and indeed a very expensive disaster. Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that in global terms relatively smaller universities perform better than very large ones.

It is also part of the ongoing paralysis brought about by the funding crisis, with politicians and officials wanting to ‘do something’, and this is the first thing they can think of. They should spend more time thinking of something else.

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17 Comments on “The university numbers game”

  1. Norman Wyse Says:

    The implicit logic of merging is that economies of scale will produce stronger universities, where ‘stronger’ means higher up the Times university ranking. There is an assumption that larger universities are better universities, which is something that is far from clear, and probably does not follow, by reference, at least, to the top US universities (as you point out in your article).

    Merging also comes with significant risks: 1. a larger administration, even when streamlined, 2. damage to existing college identities/traditions/brands, 3. potentially a severed link to local/regional community and support base, 4. a reduction in access to 3rd level education that inevitably follows centralisation, 5. less competition in the sector overall.

    Essentially the argument is ‘economies of scale’ versus ‘compact and dynamic’; a few large monolithic institutions versus a large ecosystem of competing and collaborating institutions.

    It is by no means clear which option is the best for Ireland. We have no end of reports, but they are usually noncommittal, and if Hunt didn’t fall down in this regard, it also didn’t justify one of the main currents running through it, that we need consolidation. Indeed, considering how much this consolidation will inevitably cost in the process, we ought to reassured of a good outcome.

    The Hunt report represents the prevailing consensus that has developed over the past 10-15 years in Dublin, which emphasizes consolidation, critical mass, centralisation, (more recently) return of fees, etc. Many of these views remain unelaborated and lack theoretical or empirical justification. For empirical justification, you could quite easily look to other similar countries in Europe and find that our 3rd level education system is roughly similar in terms of size and distribution. But this does not fit the prevailing narrative.

    The Hunt report subsumed the outcome of the Port report, which examined the case for a university in Waterford based on an upgrade of WIT. Such is the influence of the views of a very narrow circle controlling higher education in Ireland, Hunt didn’t even address the issue directly, except to say that no more traditional universities should be created.

    But other agendas push forward. It is apparently a fait accompli that the Dublin area will receive a new technological university in the form of an upgrade of the DIT and other institutes, thus leaving not one IoT in Dublin and a total of 5 universities in the greater Dublin area. The outcome for Waterford and the south east is the possibility of a university of technology provided WIT merges with CIT, leaving the region effectively with 1/2 a university (for a pop. of nearly 500K).

    The strategy group driving the Hunt report are far more interested in chasing league tables, and allowing institutes to upgrade themselves by brute force, rather than identifying the legitimate needs of the country, regionally and nationally, along lines that are fair and make sense. The proposed merger between WIT and CIT to create critical mass, shows a complete detachment from reality, or more likely, a misguided attempt to kill a few political birds with one stone. It is certainly a suggestion that has been made from a great distance away.

    A merger of WIT and Carlow, and a subsequent upgrade to technological university, and a merging of UCC and CIT would allow a far more sensible consolidation of institutes in the south of the country. Furthermore, the near certain merger and upgrade of the Dublin IoTs will have the effect of making IoTs merely regional outreach centres of education for those who can’t afford to set themselves up in a university city. Not exactly a good message to the sector — what happened to talk of same quality just different ‘mission distinction’.

    No matter how these merger plans are dressed up as forwarding Ireland Inc., etc, they are compromised by political interests and in any event appear extremely light on theoretical justification.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    The reality is that mergers of institutions which involve campus consolidation (especially across municipal boundaries) are a non-starter in this environment. In the Carlow example above their TDs will fight tooth and nail to avoid being subsumed into an institution that wears a different GAA jersey. It would be the spatial strategy all over again.

    Add to that the unwillingness of the academic community to embrace the notion that elitism is something to be aspired to or change of almost any sort (like minimum entry requirements) and you’ve got a recipe for endless handwringing. We’re not going to pick a “winner” and endow with the money required to make it a Harvard or Cambridge, it just won’t happen.

    • Norman Wyse Says:

      Not that I really want to get into the GAA jersey side of the problem, but I’d imagine Carlow politicians might be able to live with a non-lead presence in a technological university rather than a lead presence in a small IoT. Certainly, from what I hear, Waterford and Cork IoTs are being shoe-horned together, to the probable detriment of not only both institutes themselves, but also the south east region. If WIT and Carlow IT are not speaking to each other, then the politicians should be forcing them to, because there is at least some sense in merging these two colleges given their relative proximity. The fact of the matter is that if the leading institution in the region merges with Cork IT, there will not be a technological university unambiguously centered in the south east.

      In any case, we could never have the money to ‘make a Harvard’. If we are so utterly desperate for this prestige, despite the fact that technical degrees are really the same everywhere anyway, then the government should do a deal with Oxbridge to set aside a portion of places for Irish students. Personally, I think this would be a waste of money, given our still very respectable, but not necessarily table-topping, universities. The high tech sectors only need bog standard science and engineering degrees anyway — these subjects are often not even taught at universities on the continent, but at the equivalent of IoTs.

      Nobody seems to be asking the painfully obvious question. Why do we need to be at the top of university league tables? And would it be worth the money assuming we could even afford it?

      • Mark Dowling Says:

        I don’t think you’d have to go far before finding someone who would consider the difference between “Carlow IT” and “University of Waterford (Carlow)” to be a prestige issue and somehow damaging to investment in Carlow. Like the HSE, there would be great money in changes of stationery and nameplates but little real rationalisation and in fact increases in waste as people shuttle from Carlow to Waterford and back for meetings at Head Office.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    The Hunt report specifically ruled out mergers between universities and ITs. It is not clear why, but presumably it is something to do with maintenance of the ‘binary system’, which has the same talismanic aura as the 12.5% corporate tax rate.

    But what is this ‘binary system’? What is the difference between a university and an IT? Why is the binary system worth maintaining, apart from the fact that it exists?

    As it stands we have two types of institution:

    ‘Universities’ – located in or near cities, prestigious, discipline-focused, vocational for elite professions like medicine and law, perceived to do a lot of research, not particularly innovative but rich enough to get away with it, politically powerful, loved by the middle-class media, generally exclusive in terms of access but with small, well-funded bolt-on ‘access’ programmes

    Institutes of technology – located in rural centres or the less desirable parts of cities (usually next door to the IDA industrial estate), multidisciplinary, vocational for non-elite professions like social care practitioners and quantity surveyors, perceived not to do much research, highly innovative but get no credit for it, politically irrelevant, except in Waterford, despised by the middle-class media, generally accessible to working class and lower middle class students and those excluded from the universities, but get no funding for doing this.

    Its Donnybrook vs Blanchardstown – no wonder the elite want to keep them apart!

    Is this the type of binary system to which people aspire? Whose interests does it serve? How does it compare with other countries’ systems, say Sweden, Finland, France, Portugal, New Zealand? What are the objectives of the system as a whole?

    These are all the issues that were routinely ignored by the last government. The media has no interest or competence in debating these issues. Academic unions avoid any discussion of these issues. Ignored in the Hunt report, the OECD report, the Skilbeck report . . .

    Let the debate begin! Use Hunt as a starting point, not as a prescription.

    • My goodness, Perry, you’re not that familiar with the universities then… Are universities more discipline focused than IoTs? Don’t think so. Less innovative than IoTs? Evidence? Loved by media – what??? Exclusive in terms of access? DCU has a bigger access programme than any IoT. And well-funded? By whom? And you’ll find social care practitioners and quantity surveyors in IoTs but not universities? – Nope! IoTs get less funding? What??? Gee, Perry, that really is a comment from a parallel universe…

      Not that there isn’t a debate to be had about the binary divide, and I agree that a knee-jerk assumption that it must remain needs to be questioned. But your caricature above is *sooooo* far from the truth!

      • Perry Share Says:

        First, I should point out that I was caricaturing the 2 systems for dramatic effect – but I would still contend that there are fundamental divisions as I suggested.

        Discipline focus – you could compare the organisational structures of universities vs ITs. As far as I know there is no IT that has a discipline-based organisational structure but, to my eyes anyway, much of the university system remains organised around fairly traditional academic departments, and this reflects the discipline-based thinking of their staff. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I contend that the difference still exists.

        Innovation is in the eye of the beholder, so it is probably impossible to adjudicate on that one 🙂

        Access – my point is that ITs by their nature are accessible institutions. They routinely draw a much greater proportion of their students from less privileged populations. One way to measure this would be to compare the number of students who enter ITs/universities with FETAC qualifications. The ITs get little in the way of additional funding to assist in this – they just do it.

        Universities are by their nature exclusive – they run access programmes (often quite well-funded by philanthropy) to redress this imbalance to a marginal extent and I’m sure that DCU is exemplary in this regard. But, there is one university in Ireland that a) receives the highest funding for ‘disadvantaged students’ and b) has the lowest number of such students of any institution in the state.

        I don’t know the specifics in relation to QS (I was only using these examples as illustrative, though I would be interested to know of which universities in Ireland do offer a degree in QS) but I do know for a fact that there is no university in Ireland that educates professional social care practitioners, as defined in the pending registration criteria.

        Funding is again in the eye of the beholder, because there are many ways of cutting it (per WTE student, per employee, per credit, gross funding &c). But the extension of unit costing to the IT sector and the development of standardised metrics across the tertiary sector will reveal where the money is going. I will be amazed if it emerges that the ITs as a whole are ‘better funded’ than the universities as a whole – which is not to say that one or two ITs might not be better funded than one or two universities.

        In terms of the media it would be instructive to carry out a content analysis of the main broadsheet media in Ireland to determine a) the coverage of the 2 sectors and b) the level of positive/promotional coverage vis a vis negative/critical. Again, I would be surprised if it emerged that the IT sector received more/better coverage, but am ready to be convinced otherwise.

        Perhaps the ITs are indeed a parallel universe! But I think it is worth having an informed and honest debate about the nature of the binary division and what it is for and what it means.

    • Al Says:

      Greater questions than those that are in the media at present, will have to be asked.
      One thing about Hunt that struck me was the ‘partnership’ type approach with the representative panel.
      IMHO it represents a failed approach …

    • Norman Wyse Says:

      Whatever about some of the details that Ferdinand finds fault with, I find this a remarkably compelling characterisation of the “binary system”, particularly in terms of your “Donnybrook vs Blanchardstown” analogy.

      The “mission distinction” underpinning the binary system implies that IoTs and universities do different things, but operate at the same level. The reality is that IoTs do not have a monopoly on technical subjects — far from it — and therefore are restricted to a subset of what universities do. So there is only a very flawed mission distinction at best. As to IoTs and universities operating on the same level. Nobody believes this. Only 3 IoTs could be said to be comparable to universities in various respects, but a glass ceiling becomes apparent whenever these institutes attempt to progress. If they are innovative and establish research competencies, it isn’t well reported or acknowledged by the establishment.

      Since the binary system cannot credibly be explained by reference to a mission distinction, then we are left with a more dubious distinction, relating to prestige, tradition and political power. Add to that some pseudo-science springing from the long repeated dogma, “there are too many universities as it is”, and you start to get a picture of the partition between IoTs and universities.

      I would question Ferdinand’s assertion that universities get more funding than IoTs — with the hope of becoming more enlightened, at least! Judging by the doubling in size of the DCU campus is short order between the mid-90’s and mid-00’s, I seriously doubt Waterford IT was in possession of the same level of funding. If the staff in IoTs are paid more, then fair enough, but otherwise this presumed extra funding is not obvious, to me at least.

      • ‘Donnybrook vs Blanchardstown’ is not a typical comparison. Ballymun vs Blanchardstown, anyone? Limerick?

        DCU’s expansion was almost entirely unfunded by the state, it was mostly private money. I looked on with amazement as IoTs got state funding to buy land (most recently Letterkenny), which we would never have got. The IoTs’ funding per student is also slightly higher than that of the universities.

        • Norman Wyse Says:

          I would be shocked if a university needed funding for land and were denied it. If the government takes advantage of the fact that a university already has adequate funds to purchase land, then that is another matter, and is wrong.

          Universities in Ireland are the only institutes that are really taken seriously by the media, and as importantly, the IDA. The complete lack of acknowledgement from the state makes it extremely difficult to attract private funding and to attract FDI in to the hinterland of an IoT, even a well developed IoT such as WIT.

          There will be no possibility of achieving DCU levels of private investment, whilst WIT remains in an implicit 2nd tier of education, and whilst IDA investment regards WIT a weaker draw than, say, UL or NUIG.

          If WIT, for example, received more funding per student than the universities, which I would question, then it seems to me that its upgrade would make the institute cheaper to run. It would grow very quickly thereafter in student numbers and levels of private investment, mirroring UL’s progression.

          In any case, I don’t think it should be forgotten that there are wealthy individuals throughout Ireland, and beyond, that may be willing to invest in an institution from the region they are associated with. There is a danger that mergers and consolidation will disembody institutions by severing links to their natural hinterlands. The powers that be in higher education in Ireland tend to disregard the social capital that has been built up in cities and regions over many centuries that can provide huge support to institutions, financial and otherwise.

  4. Richard Says:

    I thought that as dispassionate, evidence based academics reference to research on the success factors surrounding mergers (irrespective of who (or is it whom?) with who(m) might be interesting for us in this debate.

    The Australian researchers Grant and Kay Harman have analysed higher education mergers and conclude that they are ‘frequently disruptive, strongly contested and costly in both human and financial terms…’ but they ‘…have the potential to produce substantial longer-term benefits, particularly larger and more comprehensive institutions, stronger academic programmes, improved student services, enhanced student choice, greater institutional flexibility and, under certain conditions, increased efficiencies and cost-savings.’ The Harmans also note that there are clear patterns to the types of mergers that work (unitary – previous institutions cease to exist and a brand new entity is created) and ones that don’t (federal – previous institutions and campuses remain as part of a federal institution).

    If mergers are to be a feature of the higher education system in Ireland over the next five to ten years an enlightened debate about the benefits and costs is needed as well as a clear understanding of what models work and what ones do not.

    Grant and Kay Harman. Institutional Mergers in Higher Education:Lessons From International Experience. Tertiary Education and Management 9: 29–44, 2003.

    • Al Says:

      All thats fine and dandy.
      You refer to the visible situation
      What about the less visible things
      Politicians and political promises.
      Political institutions and their contests nationally and locally.
      National strategies and local strategies
      Industry and their opinions

      • Richard Says:

        Let’s at least start with an attempt to ground what is done or proposed in some form of rationality and evidence base because if you don’t who knows where it will end up. If the debate is left to politicians and the political and the political contest it will end up precisely as you imply.

  5. […] more comprehensive technical university is going to be such a seismic change?   See for heated debate on this topic. […]

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