Posted tagged ‘Peter Sutherland’

Summer schools

July 24, 2010

You know it’s summer in Ireland when June’s relatively good weather has turned into wind and rain and when you start to read reports about the MacGill Summer School. Reading reports is as far as this has gone for me, as I have never been at it – so maybe that should be my ambition for next year. Heavens, I don’t even know whether you can just turn up or need to be invited.

Anyway, this year’s programme has been on the theme of ‘Reforming the Republic’, which is a kind of fashionable topic right now, as it tens to allow anyone and everyone to indulge in their whinge of choice. However, the reports of the event have been interesting, and individual speakers have pursued ideas and thoughts that could well be helpful as we try to work our way back to a better state of the nation.

On Thursday there was a session on education reform, and this was used by Hugh Brady, President of UCD, to set out the case for tuition fees (and point to the collateral damage caused by ‘free fees’ to university car parking). In addition, he warned that it may no longer be feasible for universities to increase student intake in the light of the funding problems they face. The risks we run by not facing up to the funding of Irish higher education and the return of fees was also addressed a day later, on Friday, by former EU Commissioner Peter Sutherland.

The still developing Irish tradition of summer schools is quite unique, as far as I am aware – and their capacity to stimulate informed national debate is hugely valuable. It is a practice we should nurture.


Peter Sutherland and the Irish universities

January 27, 2010

Following recent reports on his comments about the Irish university system, Peter Sutherland has now written a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times correcting these reports, or at any rate some interpretations of his comments.

In his letter he denies suggesting that Ireland needed fewer universities, but rather says that we ‘cannot have seven world class comprehensive universities’. He proposes that there should be ‘a small number of comprehensive research universities’, and that the rest should specialise in certain subject areas where they can have critical mass or should see themselves as regional institutions.

There may be something in what he says, although I suspect that most would read such comments as supporting a two or even three-tier system of higher education. In some ways it would not be logical for me to complain, since DCU does not see itself as a ‘comprehensive’ university, though we would certainly not accept that we are in a lower league from any other Irish university, including the universities of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4.

I guess it also is connected somewhat with the concept of ‘world class’, a description which is perhaps used too freely and without much objective meaning, beyond perhaps suggesting a place in a particular range of the global university rankings. But it would be right, I suspect, to look more closely at what Peter Sutherland is saying here, and to ask whether we need to consider what mission each of the Irish universities has or should have.

Would you like a ‘super-university’?

January 26, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote on Peter Sutherland’s address at the Royal Irish Academy, in which he was reported to have asked whether Ireland could afford to maintain seven world class universities. It may be worth mentioning briefly his other, related, point (according to the report in the Sunday Independent): that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. This is how the report quotes him:

‘Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”‘

One must always allow for the possibility that the report was not totally accurate, and in any case it has to be said that Peter Sutherland, one Irish person with real standing internationally, often goes out of his way to make a case for Irish higher education more generally. In any case, what he is reported to have said has been said by others, and has since the 1960s and maybe before been a regular topic of conversation in Irish academic circles. In 1967 a merger between the two colleges was proposed by then then Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley. It is interesting to reproduce more fully an account (published in an article by Thomas E. Nevin the journal Studies in 1985) of that proposal.

A Commission set up by the government had proposed that the NUI Colleges should become independent universities (this may sound familiar). But before this could be seriously considered the following took place:

‘The Provost of TCD and the President of UCD were called to the Department of Education by Mr O’Malley and told that he was rejecting the Commission recommendation. He told them that the Government proposed to establish a new single University of Dublin with UCD and TCD as Colleges; that there should be one University of Dublin to contain two Colleges each as far as possible complementary to the other, the University to own all the property of the Colleges; and that there should be no unnecessary duplication of staff, buildings or equipment.’

Asa we know it proved impossible to implement this proposal, but from time to time the idea is resurrected, and usually gets a fairly negative response in one or both colleges. Last year’s establishment by them of their ‘Innovation Alliance’ probably represents what for both college heads was the most that they could easily deliver. Whether Peter Sutherland’s comments will drive this agenda any further is, I imagine, doubtful. In the meantime, the suggestion itself must also serve to increase tensions between the two colleges in question and the rest of the Irish university sector.

But why do it anyway? What would a merger achieve that is unattainable by other means, such as a strategic partnership? Indeed, how would a planned merger overcome what is now known internationally to be the complex set of problems that accompany such initiatives and that have made many of them fail, often before they are fully implemented? Peter Sutherland is now mainly based in London, the place where the planned merger of Imperial College and University College London – which was intended to create the ‘world’s number one university’ – ultimately failed. University mergers require a convergence of institutional cultures and an acceptance by the communities of both institutions that they will gain from the initiative; in an academic environment this is very hard to achieve.

It is clear to me that the level of coordinated strategic cooperation between Irish universities – both sector-wide and in sub-groups – meeds to improve dramatically over the short to medium term. But ironically the chance of that succeeding will be impeded by pushing merger proposals and similar initiatives, which will if pursued divert energies from where they are now most urgently needed.

And in addition, as I noted in the previous post, it is far from clear that the size of a university makes a whole lot of difference. In the end it is quality that counts.

How many universities should we have?

January 24, 2010

I see that Peter Sutherland has entered the debate, such as it is, on how many universities would be just right for Ireland. According to a report in Saturday’s Irish Times, he told a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy that ‘Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education and training levels.’ He thus joins the chorus of voices who have made similar claims, including the government in the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued in December 2008.

As long term readers of this blog (bless you) will know, we’ve discussed this subject previously. There is in fact very little empirical evidence to support the contention that any particular number, large or small, of universities is right for any particular country. There is some evidence, as it happens, that maintaining high levels of quality is easier in smaller universities than in large ones, and in fact very few (if any) of the world’s largest universities appear in the global rankings.

The other disadvantage of assertions about the allegedly excessive number of Irish universities is that they take the focus away from something that does matter, how the various universities interact with each other. Suggesting that universities might have to merge or be closed makes them defensive and suspicious, just as they should be opening up to closer collaboration with others. So the best thing we can do is probably to ignore such calls (and hope that others do, too) and get on with the agenda of strategic collaboration.