Why Ireland needs to create a single super-university

A radical solution is needed to stop Irish colleges sliding down global rankings

The presidents of Irish universities bemoan their international rankings and collectively call on the Minister for Education to increase their funding, so as to allow them to climb back up the global rankings.

The Minister for Education replies: provide your students with marketable skills and produce entrepreneurs with patents from your expensive science, technology and engineering laboratories.

Both positions – based on what is happening in some of the best-performing countries – are misguided.

Our investment in universities and institutes of technology, particularly in research and science initiatives, coincided with similar initiatives in other OECD countries.


The German "excellence initiative"(exzellenzinitiative) was started in 2005 with 140 competitors in a race to restore the pre-eminence of German universities that had come to an end in the early 1930s. Eleven universities reached elite status by 2012. Despite political lobbying, eight of its 16 federal states, each roughly the size of Ireland, are without an elite university.

If you divide the population of Germany by the number of elite universities, it work out at almost 7.5 million people per top-tier university.

If Ireland were a part of Germany, it would be unable to support a single elite university. With 4.5 million people and nine universities, our ratio is 0.5 million people per university, we have an enormous mismatch between reality and wishful thinking. Instead of lobbying for the impossible, what should the presidents of Irish universities do?

University of Paris

The Sorbonne – ancient University of Paris – was divided into 13 universities following the student riots of May 1968. They are invisible in a globalised Anglophone world for reasons of both language and size.

The most recent French competitive initiative d'excellence has produced eight "new" research universities that are international in outlook including: PSL Paris – Quartier Latin (2011), followed a year or two later by USPC Sorbonne, SUPER-Sorbonne, and the University of Paris-Saclay.

That is roughly one “new” institution per three million people in the greater Paris region, and one per six to eight million people in four provincial centres.

These “new” marginal-cost French universities are collegiate structures that contain existing institutions, respecting and benefiting from their separate traditions.

The mismatch between Irish aspiration and international reality is again evident. It’s Hobson’s choice for Ireland: one outstanding institution of higher education and research on the world stage now, or none. Because of our population size, there is no other choice.

Our small-country peers have already decided on one international champion: The Karolinska Medical University, Sweden (population: 10 million) that awards the Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine; ETH-Zürich, the alma mater of Albert Einstein in Switzerland (eight million); the Technion Israel Institute of Technology (eight million), and the National University of Singapore (five million). These are our bench-mark competitors for foreign direct investment.

The size of the population-base per international champion is significant not just for the supply of grants, fees, contracts and endowments, but also for the supply of bright, highly-motivated students.

Picking one, and only one, of our existing institutions for elevation to elite status is politically impossible.

Competitive element

In spite of the competitive element in the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions or Science Foundation Ireland investment in Irish colleges, latest figures show each institution received its appropriate share of the funds.

This is proven by the absence of political controversy and the continued cohesion of the heads of Irish universities. All achieved some international visibility in one or more areas of excellence.

We can build on this achievement. Our Higher Education Authority policies rule out merger by political fiat, applaud spontaneous alliances and call for regional clusters and "other formal relationships in respect of particular disciplines".

They speak of the “system level”, but not of an international champion. The authority has failed to recognise the over-riding importance of scale, and the necessity to have only one internationally visible structure for Irish universities and institutes of technology in proportion to our population.

The Higher Education Authority has made the wrong Hobson’s choice.

The only feasible course of action for Ireland to avert continued sinking in the world rankings is to create a new “International University of Ireland”.

This could be a world-class research university that consists exclusively of the internationally-visible parts of all our existing institutions, and to do so at marginal cost using joint academic appointments, joint facilities and joint student registration, in a highly flexible and dynamic manner.

Those parts that are not internationally visible would be excluded from this International University of Ireland.

Collegial universities

The "new" French collegial universities provide elements of a model. PSL – Paris Sciences et Lettres – Quartier Latin brought together 19 self-governing institutions contributing 11 Nobel prizes. Its 18,000 students make it comparable to Trinity College Dublin or University College Cork, but with a population-base more than six times as big.

An International University of Ireland with a population-base comparable to PSL, in a single all-Ireland structure, might lay claim to 10 Nobel laureates, four in literature, five in peace and one in physics.

The institutions participating in PSL are not diminished by their cooperation. Top of PSL's 24 co-operating academic and performing arts institutions is the remarkable Collège de France founded in 1530. It has no student registry and awards no degrees. Attendance is free and open to everyone. The women and men who hold its 47 chairs (2016) undertake world-class research and tell the world via a marvellous website. PSL is not a merger; it is a collegial structure comparable to Oxford or Cambridge.

We have many Irish examples of joint degree programmes, joint facilities, and jointly appointed staff, both within and between existing third-level institutions, at home and abroad.

An Irish version of what they have done in Germany, France and elsewhere could begin immediately by offering all internationally visible staff the title of research professor, and by paying them for one day per week of “outside work” in the new university.

In other words, they could be offered marginal-cost fixed-term joint appointments when they exceed an appropriate international benchmark. They retain their appointment, duties and facilities at their home institution.

The novelty of a proposed International University of Ireland is the alignment of selected joint activity with the metrics of the international rating agencies. This would require a new collegial structure that penetrates all nine universities and institutes of technology.

It must control a substantial budget or it will not function. The history of the National University of Ireland provides guidance on what not to do.

Philip O’Kane is a retired professor and chair of civil engineering at University College Cork

Merging Ireland’s top universities ‘essential’ if we are to compete globally, say experts

Government funding has tumbled. Student numbers have climbed significantly. Lecture halls, labs and libraries are over-crowded. Staff numbers have remained static thanks to recruitment restrictions.

It is little surprise, then, that our top universities – Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin – have been sliding down international rankings, prompting much soul-searching.

A number of international experts say Irish universities must face up to reality and consolidate faculties or merge entirely if they are to break back into the top tier of rankings,

Aims McGuinness, a policy adviser to higher education institutions in the US, says Ireland needs a limited number of universities and needs to be “realistic about what is affordable to the citizens of Ireland and the economy”.

Another international expert, Prof Stephanie Fahey, has questioned whether Ireland can afford more than one world-class university.

Prof Fahey, a former university vice-president who now leads Ernst and Young's education division in Australia, has said that Australia 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.

While UCD and Trinity College Dublin have undertaken fresh research collaborations, the two universities are resolutely opposed to a merger, mooted in 2012 by an expert group chaired by Dutch academic Frans van Vught.

The report says a UCD-TCD merger would give the merged college the critical mass and expertise needed to secure a place among the world’s best-ranked universities.

Its findings were much more radical than the National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt report) published a year previously.

That backed the retention of existing universities and the establishment of new technological universities formed by mergers of various ITs.