The claim that we have too many universities is simply wrong


LEFTFIELD:Bigger is not necessarily better so the idea that our universities should merge needs to be considered in terms of educational outcomes, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

IF A PIECE of nonsense is repeated often enough, people start to believe it must be true.

Here’s an example: for the past couple of years various people and groups have been suggesting that Ireland has too many universities, and that some of them should merge.

It all began with Building Ireland’s Smart Economy,a Government paper published in 2008, which stated that Ireland had a “relatively large number of third level institutions” and that there would need to be “an even greater concentration of resources and expertise.”

Then in April of last year, the chief executive of the HEA was reported as saying that “Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive.” Some business leaders have also jumped on this bandwagon.

But is the claim true? There may be a case for rationalisation but the assertion that we have too many colleges doesn’t stand up to serious analysis.

Of course it all depends on what you mean by “too many”: too many, measured against which criteria? It’s always good to start with the evidence and let me apologise up front, for the amont of figures, but bear with me because they explain my point.

The State has seven 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 UK 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. And the US has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

The population of Wales is about one million less than that of Ireland, but it has 11 universities to Ireland’s seven. Scotland, with a population only slightly larger than Ireland’s, has 20 universities.

So, on these statistics, the claim about Ireland having too many universities is not borne out. Even if one were to add the institutes of technology (which would be misleading, because a good deal of what they do would be classified as further education in other countries), 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.

Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In recent Times Higher Educationglobal rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number eight 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.

Harvard, the number one university, 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 have failed. 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 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.

However, this does not mean that universities and colleges should not look at better ways of collaborating and sharing their resources.

The pool of expertise in Ireland as a whole is small. All of the Irish universities put together have about the same number of academic staff as one medium-sized American university. Therefore, where there are opportunities for these to work with each other they should avail of them, both in teaching and in research.

Secondly, it makes a lot of sense for universities to establish clusters of strategic alliances, taking in institutes of technology also in these alliances.

Some of these clusters are now emerging. The first to be announced was the TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance, which received a lot of attention when it was launched a year or two ago, though it has gone somewhat quiet since then.

Last year, NUI Galway and the University of Limerick announced a partnership, and it has also been confirmed that DCU, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and NUI Maynooth are working on a strategic alliance.

The institutes of technology are also beginning to come up with strategic clusters, and others are looking to partnerships with universities.

Ireland is a small country and third level institutions need to ensure that they maximize their impact. Partnerships towards this end are good. But we should stop thinking that we need to bring about mergers or reduce the number of institutions. Doing so would be hugely expensive and serve very little purpose. If we want reform (as we do), let it be reform supported by evidence.