Posted tagged ‘rationalisation’

Awash with universities?

October 20, 2009

Maybe it’s time to nail one increasingly common assertion: that by international standards Ireland has too many universities. Of course it is not altogether easy to say what one might mean by ‘too many’, but maybe one way of tackling this is to compare the number of universities with that in other countries.

Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

What point am I making? That on the statistics alone the claim about Ireland is not borne out. Even if one were to add the Institutes of Technology (which would be misleading), the figure for Ireland would still only be somewhere in the middle of the above list. On the data alone one would have to conclude that Ireland has relatively few universities by international standards.

As it happens, there are good arguments for looking at the possibility of creating strong strategic links between clusters of institutions in Ireland, and it is in the national interest to ensure that our university sector collaborates very strongly. But the view that has been expressed in various official documents – including the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued last December by the government – that we have more universities than do other countries is simply wrong. And, I suppose, that reinforces the point I have made before, that we need to ensure that our policies are evidence-based.

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University subjects and disciplines

March 18, 2009

It was reported earlier this week in the Irish Independent that, as part of the higher education rationalisation that is expected, the major casualties would be engineering and the arts, particularly minority interest languages (Italian was mentioned). I do not actually believe that we are anywhere close to taking decisions quite of that nature (though we shall indeed address rationalisation), but in our discusions we shall need to be very careful about what image of Ireland we are presenting both to the wider world and to ourselves.

There seems little doubt to me that the major growth of civil and construction engineering of recent years cannot be sustained, and will not continue anyway as a result of student choice. But engineering as a whole must not be portrayed as an area of the past – it remains critical to Ireland’s future and our economic recovery. As for the arts, we must avoid the impression that they cannot be supported in the same way during difficult economic times; the contribution they make to a balanced education system and to a stable society is vital.

As I have mentioned before, we must pursue a rationalisation agenda, and we must do so urgently. But we must also do so intelligently, remembering that today’s conditions, difficult as they are, will not last for ever, and we need to be equipped to deal with the world as it then emerges.

That is not to say that we should not be pursuing an agenda of radical change; but more of that in a coming post.

Benefits and risks of rationalisation

March 17, 2009

Over the past day or two, there have been new reports on the possibility of rationalisation in the Irish higher education sector; the Irish Independent newspaper even published an editorial on the subject. There is little doubt that an analysis of the structure of our third level is timely right now, but it is also important to point out some important aspects that will need to be taken into account.

There are two main aspects to rationalisation: (1) the question of the number and size of institutions in the sector; and (2) the question of how the institutions (whatever their number) collaborate to ensure that minority interest subjects are not duplicated across the system, and how they ensure that institutions do not all pursue the same detailed specialisms.

The aspects that need to be taken into account, in my opinion, are these. First, rationalisation is about delivering quality, it is not about cutting costs. I have seen that some comments on this subjects have implied that radical rationalisation would reduce the costs to the taxpayer and/or the student body. This is almost certainly not the case. In fact, the initial impact of almost any form of rationalisation will probably be to increase costs, as the impact of new institutional arrangements is felt. If for example the transfer of staff became necessary, this would be very costly, and if jobs were lost in the process there would be further implications.

Secondly, rationalisation aimed at creating larger institutions is probably misguided. As I pointed out in another post, there is little evidence that the size of an institution has a significant bearing on the quality of its output or its place in world rankings. What may be much more significant is the willingness of institutions to pool resources and collaborate in procurement.

Thirdly, rationalisation that is not well explained and is not the subject of proper discussion with those affected would almost certainly create more problems than it solves – the ground needs to be prepared very well.

That said, there is a good case to be made for rationalisation, and the universities (and other colleges) should embark on discussions quickly, with a view to putting forward proposals at an early opportunity. The idea that we should have seven universities with each doing more or less the same thing is not a viable one at this time. Indeed the rather different nature of DCU (compared with the other universities) shows that a more specialised institution can work very well, if it has a clear focus and mission. But we should not imagine that this will provide quick and easy answers to all our problems.