Merger of Trinity and UCD urged in top-level report

 

THE PUBLICATION of a major report on higher education, which recommends the merger of University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin among a series of sweeping changes to the higher education system, has been delayed.

University sources claim the controversial report – commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and carried out by an international panel of education experts – has been “shelved”. However, this was strongly refuted by official sources last night.

The report was due to be circulated among university presidents and other college heads yesterday but its release has been postponed after discussions between the HEA and the Department of Education.

Scheduled meetings between college heads, the HEA and the international panel – due early next month – have also been postponed to an unspecified date.

In a letter to university presidents and other college heads last Thursday, HEA chief executive Tom Boland said some further time was needed “for clarification on policy issues and for wider consultation”.

The report of the international panel, chaired by Prof Frans Van Vught, a Dutch academic specialising in education policy, proposes the State’s 20-plus higher education colleges should be consolidated into just six. It envisages a series of changes including the UCD-TCD merger and the creation of a national technological university with a campus in both Dublin and Waterford.

There is speculation that other changes in the unpublished report include the merger of DCU, NUI Maynooth, Athlone IT and Dundalk IT; the merger of NUI Galway with colleges in the region, the merger of all colleges based in Cork-Kerry and the merger of colleges based in Limerick.

In a letter to college heads earlier this month, Mr Boland says the report is designed to “provide an external perspective . . . on an optimal configuration of the Irish higher education system”.

The new report is much more radical than the National Strategy for Higher Education or the Hunt report last year. This backed the retention of existing universities and the establishment of new technological universities formed by mergers of various ITs.

One university source said last night: “We were asked to work within the Hunt report, which has been backed by [Minister for Education] Ruairí Quinn – we don’t need and don’t want another proposal.”

Unusually, the report was prepared without consultation with the colleges themselves. In his letter, Mr Boland says this approach “left the panel free to take a view which might challenge current thinking and offer alternative models of reform.”

In a statement to The Irish Times last night, the HEA said the changes proposed by the panel “is one particular way of addressing issues . . . It is not the only way in which this could be done, nor was it intended to imply this.”

The HEA also stressed that the radical changes proposed by the panel on rationalisation “does not accord with Government policy nor does it represent the views of the HEA”.

Prof Van Vught of the European Commission is a leading world authority on change management within higher education.

Other members include Prof Vin Massaro, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Prof Lauritz B Holm Nielsen, rector of Aarhus University, and Eva Egron Polak, secretary general of the International Association of Universities. The panel worked solely on the basis of a portfolio of information and statistics about Irish higher education.

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. At present, Ireland is not represented among the top 100 universities in the prestigious Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking.

In his letter Mr Boland stresses how the international panel report is just one element that will assist in “an overall reconfiguration of the higher education system.”

In this task the HEA will also be guided by submissions from the colleges themselves and from a forthcoming ESRI report that predicts a 25 per cent increase in student numbers by 2030.

The panel says its report is designed to ensure that institutes will be sufficiently large to be serious players in the global higher education community. They say their proposals would assist institutional diversity, expand capacity within constrained budgets and ensure less duplication, while also ensuring each institution will be of a sufficient size to sustain a comprehensive range of research programmes and teaching.

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