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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