Universities must merge to compete, experts say

Slip in rankings should be countered by consolidation according to policymakers

UCD Students react to the University falling out of the world’s top 200 universities in a prestigious global league table, Students featured: Evie, Henry, Michael, Katie & Tim.

 

Irish universities need to consolidate faculties or merge entirely if they are to break back into the top tier of rankings, international experts have said.

University College Dublin this week fell out of the world’s top 200 universities in the Times Higher Education rankings, just three years after it dropped out of the top 100. Trinity College Dublin also slipped, but remains in the top 150.

Aims McGuinness, a policy adviser to higher education institutions in the US, said: “Ireland needs a limited number of universities competing in the world. I am not going to give a number but one ought to be realistic about what is affordable to the citizens of Ireland and the economy.”

Another international expert, Prof Stephanie Fahey, who was in Dublin this week meeting university presidents, has questioned whether Ireland can afford more than one world-class university.

Research collaborations

Mr McGuinness, who is based at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Colorado, but is in Ireland this week meeting stakeholders, said: “If you look from a public policy view, the choices are very stark.”

He said he was struck while visiting Donegal by the high rates of unemployment and how indebtedness was weighing people down, and this should be the starting point in discussions, not rankings.

“I think what is really missing is a clear statement of national goals. What are your goals in the terms of educating the population and strengthening the economy? You can’t look at a funding mechanism without looking at those goals.”

He said policymakers might try to “squeeze more” out of middle-income families through students loans or a graduate tax. “But I don’t think there is any squeezing that can be done. The net income from that, if you really think about it, is not high.”

Short-term measures

“You need a giant increase in efficiencies between and among institutions, and you can do that without compromising autonomy. It’s not sustainable to have resources spread around so much.”

Addressing an Irish Universities Association meeting earlier this week, Prof Fahey, a former university vice-president who now leads Ernst and Young’s education division in Australia, said that country had to tackle some “sacred cows” as part of its reforms.

This included assessing the number of world-class universities a country the size of Australia could “realistically continue to support”. In the past 10 years, there has been a major consolidation of higher education in Australia.