We should ensure there is not too much of an overlap in provision of courses


LEFTFIELD:MANY YEARS ago I was a law student. I took the Legal Science course (as it was then called) in Trinity College Dublin but if I had wanted I could have gone to UCD or UCC. Back then these were the colleges offering law. Anyone contemplating the subject today has a bewildering choice of institutions.

All universities now offer law degree programmes, as do Dublin Institute of Technology, Waterford Institute of Technology, and a number of other institutions including some private colleges.

There is clearly still a good deal of demand for this course from students but does Ireland need quite that many providers? At least law is considered a major higher education subject but what about some that might be considered to attract a minority interest only?

One could look at some modern languages. Italian, for example, is offered in four Irish universities and in DIT. It is a beautiful language and has very important cultural aspects: it is very important in philosophy, history and theology; it is strategically important that there is provision for it in Ireland.

But should it be offered in so many institutions? Would it not make more sense to ensure that there is critical mass in at least one institution, and maybe offer it in a second one to produce a choice of specialisms and maybe some competition?

And how about Russian, or German (I know, everyone thinks German is so important, but it is doubtful that we need to have it taught everywhere).

We could look at science. It seems right to me that every university should offer the basic building blocks of science, given that everyone knows we need more science graduates in Ireland. But science is not just about physics, chemistry and biology – there are important areas that need to be addressed but which may not always experience the same level of demand.

Then there are interdisciplinary programmes that address current industrial and social needs. Do we need to have every bit of science taught in every university?

Much the same can be said of engineering and computing. Particularly at this stage of Ireland’s national development, there is no need for civil engineering in every institution, or indeed in very many of them.

In short, what should we be doing to ensure that the provision of courses across the state is rational and affordable, that there is not an excessive overlap, that institutions collaborate with each other to ensure that appropriate links are made between disciplines and subjects, and that in strategically important subjects there is sufficient critical mass in specific locations?

In fact, there have been discussions between the universities on this topic but they have not gone anywhere very fast. To some extent this is understandable, as institutions will naturally want to protect their academic integrity.

To add to this, there is still a feeling in many academic circles that you are not a university unless you have a full portfolio of programmes pretty much across all disciplines.

I’ve heard it said that an institution which doesn’t have history, for example, or philosophy or geography, cannot truly be called a university. Take your pick. But if we really take that approach, it means that every university will have a large number of rather small departments, and if that is the case they won’t be much good at competing with the best internationally.

On the other hand, I am not attracted to the idea of a national university “system” that distributes subject areas to individual campuses via some centralised bureaucratic mechanism, and under which each university would no longer be an institution in charge of its own strategy, but rather would be a body implementing a government agency’s blueprint for higher education.

There has to be some solution in between these extremes, and it must be reached by a voluntary process.

So this is what I believe needs to be done. The universities need to get together to agree on a model of provision that allows real strengths to be developed across the sector, while still maintaining the strategic integrity of each college.

So, to take my earlier example, they should agree that there are too many Italian departments, and that there probably shouldn’t be more than two.

They might agree that in engineering, to take another example, different colleges will go for different areas of focus, after all have offered students the basic building blocks.

They might find a way of ensuring that specialisms in one college can be accessed by students in others. And then they might want to look at ways in which the complementary strengths of the colleges can be harnessed to produce really strong, world leading research teams that are built on strategic collaboration.

I believe that this can be achieved. I also believe that it will only work if the universities agree on this through their own initiative. But they should get going now.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal of Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Scotland