In January 2010 the then Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe (now retired from politics), announced that he intended to ‘dissolve’ the National University of Ireland (a statement that made the NUI appear to be a kind of giant Alka Selzer). It was never entirely clear what was the reason for this decision, but in fairness to Mr O’Keeffe there were plenty of people expressing doubts about it. At least two of its constituent colleges had been seeking its demise, and ‘An Bord Snip Nua’ (the ‘Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes’, chaired by economist Colm McCarthy) had recommended that it be abolished. Subsequently it was announced that some of its functions would be transferred to the new quality body that was to be created.
Now the NUI has made a dramatic comeback, with the new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, announcing that it isn’t going to be disbanded after all. Just as Mr O’Keeffe’s announcement came out of the blue and didn’t seem to owe much to any consultation, so the restoration of the NUI is also not set in the context of any particular strategy, nor have the reasons been explained (as far as I can tell). I suspect that there will be some raised eyebrows, both amongst the NUI colleges and the board of the yet to be fully established new quality authority.
I have never worked for an NUI college, and so I don’t have much emotional capital riding on this, but I do wonder about this reversal. What exactly is it for? What does Ruairi Quinn have in mind when he suggests that he will have new, additional roles for it? Given all the chatter about the restructuring of the higher education sector, could he possibly even intend that it should have other members and that it would have coordinating or regulatory functions? That would, I imagine, open up a whole new set of concerns on the part of other universities and colleges. And if the NUI is to be reinvigorated, what will the implications be for the UCD-TCD alliance, given that TCD is not a member of the NUI?
I think that the Minister will really need to explain what exactly is in his mind before the speculation gets out of hand.