The big, really big, higher education fallacy

When it comes to Irish higher education, every so often someone steps forward – either with relevant credentials or quite often without – and suggests that the only way forward is to merge the country’s universities. In 2010 it was former European Commissioner and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland. He suggested that Ireland could not have seven world class universities, and the only way to get any at all would be to merge Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin.

This year the suggestion has come from one Philip O’Kane, a retired University College Cork Professor of Civil Engineering. Writing in the Irish Times, he has come up with an argument that is novel to me. Germany, he says, has created a new set of elite universities, and of these there is one for every 7.5 million people. Therefore Ireland really can’t have any elite institutions, given the population, but if it is to have any chance at all it must merge the whole lot and create just one. A single ‘super-university’.

The idea that a really really big university would naturally be much more competitive clearly seduces intelligent people from time to time, but it is complete nonsense. None of the world’s top 20 universities (as recognised by the Times Higher Education rankings) is particularly big. One – the number 2, which in the previous couple of years was number 1 – is in fact particularly small, having only 2,255 students overall. Conversely not a single one of the 100 biggest universities in the world is in the global 100 best universities. And if you think Germany has found the way forward, its ‘elite’ universities don’t score terribly well in the rankings; it has none in the top 20.

The driver of global recognition is never size, but excellence. Even when it come to resourcing and funding, the critical issue is not how many dollars we get overall, but how many per student or faculty. This recurring invitation to set about merging everything is not just a distraction, it is quite simply wrong. If someone were tempted to make it happen, the result would be disastrous, not least because – and here’s another point to consider – multi-campus institutions rarely do well.

So, every time this call is made, I just sit there hoping absolutely no one is listening.

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2 Comments on “The big, really big, higher education fallacy”


  1. “multi-campus institutions rarely do well”

    Which is why Oxbridge do so badly considering the excessive resources thrown at them. I was told that you could walk from Oxford to London without ever deviating from land owned by the University. Not sure how much land Dundee Uni owns but I reckon its not money (however calculated) that is the relevant metric but sheer talent which is easily spotted …. just watch The Grand Tour

  2. Vince Says:

    Here’s a really off the wall one for you.
    Say we pick a nice flat site a mile at most from a rail line and in quite close to two or even three motorways. The we build a Penn State, with a massive teaching hospital with kids and maternity add on’s. We have a gigantic library and sports facilities. But most important we have enough accommodation in ample and adequate living quarters. Then we hoike ( my new favorite term) the National Archive, huge sections of the National Library and Museums and whatever else might be nice.
    Why, because since the mid 90’s the current uni towns can’t facilitate the volume of students without destroying the working environment and the spoilt pampered little brats that populate the uni system in Ireland couldn’t come together to build a maternity and kids hospital on the M50. The only logical place for a ‘national’ kids hospital.
    This knot isn’t going to be cut the normal way. Look at what occurred when the Atlantic Resources money appeared over the horizon. It just became a gigantic and ongoing bill upon the exchequer.


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