UCD+TCD research merger may be delayed

 

THE GOVERNMENT is under intense pressure to postpone the announcement of a research merger between University College Dublin (UCD) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) after a furious reaction from other universities.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen – who has been closely involved in the process – was expected to announce details of the merger next week.

But UCC president Dr Michael Murphy said yesterday the merger could “potentially threaten the integrity of the Irish university community” and create a two-tier system.

University presidents at Maynooth, Limerick, Galway and at Dublin City University have also expressed unease about the development. The forthcoming merger announcement was expected to be accompanied by the promise of new funding for UCD and Trinity from the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation – the blueprint for developing research and technological innovation.

Secret moves to establish the research link between UCD and TCD have been under way since late last year, largely at the instigation of UCD president, Dr Hugh Brady.

It is understood that Mr Cowen, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe and Minister for Finance Brian Linehan discussed the proposed merger of research functions with Dr Brady and Trinity provost John Hegarty earlier this week.

A separate meeting involving various State agencies including Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and the Higher Education Authority also considered the merger proposal on Tuesday.

Economist Peter Clinch, who drafted the Government’s document on the “smart economy” has also been central to the process. The document made a strong case for deeper collaboration between universities. The Government is backing the merger, amid growing impatience in official circles about the “failure” of the €1 billion investment in third-level research to deliver jobs.

The Government believes one “super university”, uniting the research functions in UCD and Trinity would be better placed to develop “world class” research.

But this view has infuriated the other universities. Some of these, notably UCC, have a very successful record of attracting research funds. In a statement to UCC’s academic council yesterday, Dr Murphy said: “UCC is extremely concerned by the press reports of possible Government diversion of funding earmarked for national research investment, for the selective benefit of individual universities.” The move by UCD and Trinity has imposed severe strains on the relationship between the seven university presidents.

One senior figure said: “This has done untold damage to the co-operation between us. It is nothing short of a grab by the two universities to maximise their own funding, at our expense.” But UCD and TCD say closer collaboration between the two is in the wider national interest. The two are the only Irish universities ranked in the world top 200.

In recent weeks, Dr Murphy, president of NUI Maynooth Dr John Hughes, NUI Galway president Dr Jim Brown and UL president Don Barry have met to co-ordinate their response to the UCD–TCD move. The dispute is an awkward one for Mr O’Keeffe, who is from Cork.Last night, education sources stressed there was no question of research funding being “ring-fenced” to support the UCD–TCD initiative. At present, third-level colleges are pitching for some €300 million in research funding under the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Education sources said there would be the “normal competitive” bidding for research contracts.