Posted tagged ‘university mergers’

The big, really big, higher education fallacy

November 21, 2016

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.


Waterford and Carlow, and the strange tale of a proposed ‘technological university’

October 19, 2015

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute or the city for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

Since 1997 there has been a statutory mechanism for examining the case an institution might make for conversion to university status. Under the Universities Act a panel of national and international experts would be established to examine the application, and would make a recommendation to the government based on criteria set out in the Act. There is at the very least a strongly arguable case that any such application by WIT would succeed.

But that would be all too rational and simple, so of course we cannot do it that way. Partly because Waterford is not the only institute of technology wanting to be re-badged, and because regional political pressures might push the system to consider such ambitions seriously, a much more complex and totally implausible framework has been established, based on the idea that there should be a separate category in Ireland of ‘technological universities’.

The idea of technological universities emerged in the Hunt Report, National Strategy for Higher Education, published in 2011. This report suggested that such institutions could be created by merging clusters of institutes of technology and calling the resulting organization a ‘technological university’. The criteria to be applied, which were to be set out in legislation, do not differ markedly from those we might expect for a university more generally. And before anyone would be able to apply for such status, they would first have to merge with someone else.

There are all sorts of problems with this proposed framework. First of all, contrary to what is suggested in the Hunt report, there is no recognized international concept of a ‘technological university’. There are some institutions with such a name – the Technological University of Munich, and Queensland University of Technology are examples, but these are high value research-intensive universities, and nothing like the concept suggested in Hunt.

Secondly, and crucially, it is completely baffling why anyone would think that a merger should make two institutions more suited to be universities. The Waterford example is an instructive one. As I have suggested (and as many others have also concluded), very good arguments can be made for university status for WIT. However, the institute has been told that it can only be considered for such a status if it first merges with Carlow Institute of Technology. Carlow is a perfectly good institute, but has nowhere near the same claim for university status as Waterford. It has a much more modest research profile, and generally has a profile that is extremely valuable but not typical of a university. So how are we to make sense of the proposition that WIT is not good enough to be a university, but that if it merges with a weaker institute (and one with which it has no record of strategic collaboration) it will be more eligible? Frankly, this is totally crazy.

In fact, the assumption that merged institutions are stronger than individual ones is very questionable. None of the world’s top 20 universities is particularly large. In fact, the world’s top university (according to Times Higher Education) is Caltech, which if it were in Ireland would be the smallest third level institution here. In addition, none of the 100 largest universities in the world are in the top 100 ranked institutions. There simply is no correlation between size and excellence.

Finally, there is no evidence that mergers between institutions based in different locations are a good idea. Those that have been tried have more often than not failed. There is, simply, a need for Irish policy makers more generally to stop thinking of mergers as a good solution to anything. The fixation on this objective has the potential to do damage to the system

It would have to be said that Irish public policy on Irish institutes of technology has gone badly wrong. Rather than trying to force institutions to do something that really makes no sense, it is time to think again.

To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

October 28, 2014

One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.

In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.

It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.

All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.

All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.

Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.

Oh dear oh dear, here we go again: Irish university merger chatter

September 25, 2012

So, I leave Ireland, and off they go and start this kind of talk again. So let’s cut to the chase first. There’s been another (as yet unpublished) review of Irish higher education (I know, I know: another? Really?), and guess what it allegedly recommends: Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. And so should DCU and various others. And why? In order to ensure ‘that institutes will be sufficiently large to be serious players in the global higher education community’. Oh, gee!

Anyway, I must allow for the possibility that the report on this will not turn out to be correct. But it is based on an article in the Irish Times by Sean Flynn, and in my experience his sources are always spot on. So I’m assuming it’s as we’re being told it is. But if that is so, then this is one almighty weird story. Apparently the Higher Education Authority commissioned a group of four eminent international folks to do a report on Irish higher education. So the first question has to be, in the name of all that’s precious, why? We’ve had three reviews of Irish higher education in the space of ten years, and we already know everything that can be known, and every variety of opinion has been canvassed. That somebody should think that another one is needed is extraordinary, indeed zany. But there’s more. The report, we are told, was written ‘without consultation with the colleges themselves’, and ‘the panel worked solely on the basis of a portfolio of information and statistics about Irish higher education’. And fortified with this – well, we can’t call it information – they have recommended that everybody should jolly well get on and merge.

So let’s be frank. First, whatever else the Irish system needs, it is not another review. Truly. And if it did (which it doesn’t), such a review should not be conducted in the absence of inputs from those, I mean all those, working in the system. And even if it should do that (which it shouldn’t), it really needs to avoid focusing on re-structuring as the answer to everything. And even if new structures were the answer (which they aren’t), a TCD/UCD merger should be avoided like the plague, because even a discussion about it will unhinge rational debate about Irish higher education. And even if a TCD/UCD (or any other) merger were the best way forward (which it isn’t), then the reason given should not be that a larger university is more competitive internationally. The top 10 global universities are mostly smaller than UCD. Quality, not size, is what makes you competitive. The whole thing is just bizarre beyond words.

If I were still in Ireland I would now have to lie down in a darkened room. From my current vantage point I can only watch with amazement. There are so many things to do to secure Ireland’s higher education sector and allow it to thrive. This really really isn’t one of them.

Fewer but stronger? The ongoing push to merge

July 4, 2011

It has become an article of faith in some political circles that it is better to have fewer universities. The thinking behind this appears to be that university mergers allow the pooling of resources, and the achievement of critical mass.

The latest push for mergers has just emerged in Wales. Higher Education Wales (HEW), the umbrella body for Welsh universities, is reported to have agreed that it will ‘cooperate with proposals to halve the number of Welsh institutions’ – the current number being 12 (already down from 15 a couple of years ago).

Stakeholders in the system, from the Welsh government to the trade unions, have broadly welcomed the HEW position, and so it appears that a process to achieve these aims will get under way quickly. Whether this makes as much sense as the commentary would suggest is debatable. Reducing the number of institutions by six over a short period of time is no easy task, and is likely to involve very difficult decisions and some disorientation within the system. Whether the outcome will provide Wales with stronger institutions may also not be as obvious as is being suggested. Mergers only add strength if there is a already a high level of strategic collaboration that involves academics working on the ground. A top-down merger process is much more vulnerable, as some unsuccessful attempts have shown (most notably in London, with the failed merger of Imperial College and University College nearly ten years ago). Furthermore, the most immediate impact of mergers tends to be higher costs, and these may create issues during a time of public expenditure cuts.

On the other hand, strategic alliances and partnerships can be very effective. In that sense the approach that has been adopted by the universities in Ireland – to work towards clusters of strategic collaboration, in which provision can also be rationalised – may be rather more effective.

Wales may end up in a position where all universities have been in a merger process. Whether this will produce stability and strategic innovation is very debatable. But no doubt the rest of us will watch with some interest to see how it goes.

The university numbers game

March 1, 2011

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.

The view from the HEA

May 10, 2010

Guest blog by Tom Boland
Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority

I feel a certain trepidation as I begin my maiden voyage in the blogosphere.  It’s not as if I go boldly where no man has gone before, but I must at least go boldly.  I’ve avoided this medium of communication so far basically because there are so many others that do the job just fine for me.  But Professor von Prondzynski has “smoked me out” with his recent comments on university mergers – “Mergermania”.

Ferdinand was commenting on my reported remarks in the Irish Independent on 29 April.  The point I had sought to make in a speech to a conference on “Transforming Public Services” was that in higher education we face very considerable challenges, including the combined challenges of growing levels of participation of school leavers, together with meeting the skills needs of those already in the workforce at a time of significant resource constraints. We cannot meet these challenges and continue to have a high quality higher education system unless we do things very differently.

Part of that different approach, in my view, involves the higher education institutions, especially the universities and the institutes of technology, working together in a more co-ordinated and coherent system of higher education, where each contributes according to its strengths to achieving national (as well as institutional) objectives.  Universities cannot seek to be all things to all comers – a point which Ferdinand appears to accept in his blog posted May 9 (Philosophical questions).  Alliances and collaborations in areas such as programme development and delivery, joint appointments, research and knowledge transfer, that are customised to fit particular purposes, should be part of that new approach.  Such arrangements may over time lead to closer union of the institutions concerned where this makes sense from an institutional and national perspective.  Why not?  The issue is not so much that we need universities of a particular size but that it is difficult to see how we can resource the present structure and ensure quality outcomes with the current fragmented system of stand alone institutions.  The cross institutional collaboration or merger of departments, schools and, in time, even whole institutions is one way towards stronger, better resourced institutions and a better service to students.

While I’m in this space I would like to comment on an unrelated matter, prompted by the up-coming retirement of my host on this blog, Professor von Prondzynski.  For a variety of reasons trust has been lost by a significant number of people in a wide range of important institutions – politics, the broader public service, the Catholic Church, bankers – the list goes on.  Such a widespread loss of confidence is probably unprecedented, and certainly very unhealthy for our society.  On the other hand, our higher education system continues to enjoy a high level of confidence for its capacity to deliver what people need in their lives and careers.  In a situation of a general loss of trust, could this confidence be put to wider public service? It is noteworthy that our academic leaders are not generally part of the public discourse on matters that affect our society and economy.  Individual academics are of course often to be found in the media commenting on their special area of expertise.  But what of the role of university presidents as thought leaders and commentators in our society – on topics other than higher education?  In response to this question some time ago a president replied to me, only half facetiously, that they are kept too busy by the state in trying to make ends meet.  And I acknowledge some truth in that.  But it’s not the full story! I believe that the leaders of higher education have the capacity to make a contribution to Irish society and to the debate about our future beyond their already significant contribution to higher education itself.

President von Prondzynski, during his term as President in DCU, has been an exception to the general rule, having acquired and retained a high visibility as a university leader with views to express, who is prepared to express them. Even if one does not always agree with his opinions his voice, at least from his present perspective, will be missed.


April 30, 2010

There it is again. Once again we are being told that we have too many higher education institutions. This is how the Irish Independent yesterday reported comments by Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA):

‘Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State’s third-level funding body has warned… Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally. Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation. The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.’

This topic has been covered in this blog before, but it may be worthwhile reiterating one or two key points.

First, it is impossible to say on what basis we would have ‘too many’ universities. As I pointed out previously, measured against the size of our population Ireland has fewer universities than most developed 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.

Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In the most recent Times Higher Education global rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number 8 in the rankings, has 6,708 students, while Caltech at number 10 has only 2.245; both of these would therefore be smaller than any Irish university. The number 1 university, Harvard, is smaller than either UCD or TCD. In fact, not a single one of the global top 10 universities would, if in Ireland, be the largest institution. Conversely, not a single one of the world’s 100 largest universities features in the global rankings at all. In short, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that larger universities perform more strongly than smaller ones; if anything, the evidence goes the other way.

Thirdly, the history of university mergers is not helpful. Many of them have failed. Indeed, the only one of any note that took place over recent years that seems to have worked is the merger between the University of Manchester and UMIST, though even there it would be fair to say that the merger has not produced the improvement in the league tables that had been predicted. Most mergers cost a lot of money and take a long time to settle down, if indeed the merger succeeds at all.

The problem here is that we appear to be developing a national policy based on asserted benefits which are in fact totally unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. We need to ensure that these plans and ideas are subjected to proper scrutiny and not just blindly accepted.

All of this is annoying also because calls for mergers distract from the discussion, which I agree we should have, about the appropriate distribution of provision and the avoidance of duplication. Here too the case is not as simple as might at first appear. But I shall return to that in another post over the next few days.

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.