Fewer universities with one big brand leader known as the University of Ireland is in the wider national interest


EDUCATION:IN THE COURSE of discussions on the University College Dublin-Trinity research alliance two years ago, the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his advisers had a Very Big Idea. The secret discussions with the two universities had focused on how to build a world-class research capacity in our leading higher education colleges. But some of the Cowen team wanted to go further.

The logical step, they argued, was for a full merger of UCD and Trinity, pooling the best of both in a reshaped institution that would glide onto any list of the best universities in the world.

In the end, the ambitious plan never took off. A full research merger known as the Innovation Alliance was agreed but neither UCD nor Trinity was enthused about pooling sovereignty. A full merger? That was a bridge too far.

Ireland has seven universities and 14 institutes of technology serving a population of over four million. Each has its own academic structure and administration. Each has its own tradition and ethos. In recent years, there has been a kind of merger mania across the sector led by the UCD/TCD Innovation Alliance. The Government has been cajoling colleges to boost performance while cutting costs, a trend welcomed by the recent Hunt Report on third- level education.

Progress is being made. NUI Galway has entered into a strategic alliance with the University of Limerick. Dublin City University is in advanced discussions with NUI Maynooth and the Royal College of Surgeons about a new working relationship. Institutes of technology are forging alliances and partnerships with neighbouring colleges.

But this is progress of sorts only. It involves little or no change on behalf of the institutions. Each college will retain its own structures. Each president or director will retain his own fiefdom. In trumpeting this or that new alliance, the college public relations people will make a virtue of this. The message? Don’t worry, a full merger is off the agenda.

There is a need to look at the wider national interest, however. Ireland needs to have a university or higher education college that is recognised globally as a world leader. The benefits are obvious. Such a college would deliver world-class research and innovation, thus forging a path to successful, sustainable employment in the future.

It would also fly the flag for Irish higher education in the multibillion-euro market for international students, where Ireland continues to perform dismally.

The success of the Irish higher education system in generating employment is open to question, despite the €1 billion investment in the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI). The UCD-TCD Innovation Alliance received the lion’s share of funding from the most recent PRTLI cycle, but it has still to achieve the ambitious jobs target rolled out at the launch of the alliance two years ago. At the time, there was giddy talk of a “jobs corridor’’ linking UCD’s campus at Belfield in south Dublin and Trinity’s at College Green in the city centre that would generate 35,000 jobs.

When it comes to getting foreign students to come to these shores, Ireland has many built-in advantages in the hunt for its share of the multibillion-euro market. As an English-speaking, neutral country with a strong literary tradition, “Ireland of the Welcomes” should be well placed to compete.

The potential income for this country is vast. It’s estimated that each foreign student will spend about €26,000 per year in their host country and that every 100 students will help sustain 15 local jobs.

But Ireland is playing catch-up in this area. The total revenue generated by the higher education sector from foreign students is just €400 million annually. And numbers are in decline: between 2007 and 2008, student applications from India – a key growth market – were down by more than 40 per cent.

There are visa and immigration issues here. But the key problem is that Ireland is not even on the radar for many potential students, especially those in Asia.

Reducing the number of universities and building up one university to be a real global leader would transform the situation. It would give us a much better prospect of delivering new jobs and it would raise our international profile immeasurably. It would also create a rising tide: every college in the State would benefit if we had one market leader.

As it is, Trinity and UCD punch well above their weight, given their very poor levels of funding. But Trinity has dropped out of the listings of the world’s top 50 universities and UCD has slipped from the top 100 in the prestigious QS World University Rankings. Among the others, University College Cork is ranked highest – at 184 – while the others are all outside the top 200.

With more than 2,000 universities surveyed, the QS rankings are regarded as the most reliable guide to performance. Universities are ranked on the basis of data gathered on peer review, employer review, international faculty ratio, international student ratio, student faculty ratio and citations per faculty.

It may be that less could be more. Fewer universities with one big brand leader known as the University of Ireland would make sense. Yes, it would tread on the toes of those fiefdoms, but it is in the wider national interest. Maybe, as Cowen noted two years ago, we should begin with a full UCD-Trinity merger.