The number of third-level colleges in the State should be cut from 39 to 24, according to a document published yesterday by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
This would involve a significant programme of college mergers, particularly among institutes of technology (ITs).
In a discussion document the authority acknowledged any merger programme would “require careful planning and monitoring”.
The key change is the proposal to merge several of the 14 institutes of technology along regional lines.
In a controversial move, the HEA does not, at this stage, back the demand by Waterford and Carlow ITs for redesignation as Technological Universities (TUs). It proposes one IT for the southeast incorporating both colleges.
The HEA notes Waterford and Carlow are among several ITs seeking TU status. It also backs an alliance between Connacht and Ulster that would bring together the ITs in Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
The HEA backs a merger between Cork and Tralee ITs. It also appears to recognise that Mary Immaculate College in Limerick is reluctant to merge with University of Limerick or any other college.
While the proposals will unsettle academics and staff in some colleges, the HEA is anxious to stress they do not “represent, at this point, the considered conclusions of the HEA”.
The new document, it says, is intended as a focus for discussion and consultation with the colleges. Following that consultation, the HEA will provide what it calls its “definitive advice” to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn in March.
The Minister is pressing for rationalisation of the seven universities, 14 ITs and more than a dozen other colleges that make up the higher education system. In a recent speech, he said: “There is a need to achieve critical mass through consolidation and collaboration and the development of regional clusters.”
Under the plans the universities would establish closer links with teacher training colleges in their regions but otherwise are largely unaffected.