Dismantling the NUI

 

THE GOVERNMENT’S sudden decision to terminate the National University of Ireland leaves many questions unanswered about how its existing coordination and future quality assurance functions for higher education will now be organised. Given the paltry financial savings involved and the conviction expressed by Ministers that such tasks continue to be necessary, this is quite unsatisfactory — doubly so, given the worries expressed by NUI graduates that the prestige and symbolism of their degrees may be devalued.

The NUI is deeply embedded in Ireland’s political, cultural and educational history. Set up in 1908 by the British administration as a federal university comprising a reconstituted University College Dublin, University College Cork and University College Galway, the Act also established Queen’s University Belfast and left Trinity College Dublin/University of Dublin intact. Shortly afterwards Maynooth College became the first of a number of recognised colleges. This resolved the thorny universities question which dogged much of Ireland’s 19th century politics. The structures put in place lasted well into independent Ireland and were only amended by the Universities Act 1997.

It gave the NUI responsibility for determining basic matriculation requirements, reviewing the content and teaching of courses, appointing external examiners, and awarding degrees. Its graduates have a Senate vote.

By then higher education had expanded rapidly to meet the needs of a much more developed society and economy. The University of Limerick and Dublin City University were constituted in 1989, outside the NUI structures, just as Trinity remained. UCD’s successful move to Belfield came to full maturity, creating demands for more autonomy, while other colleges and institutes meeting various regional and professional needs grew within, and some outside, the NUI. These developments have undoubtedly created anomalies.

By choosing to tackle the issue in such a brutally insensitive fashion, the Government has alienated a key player without assuring others it has a credible alternative framework to offer. The NUI senate points out there are 250,000 graduates and 7,000 current international students who give it valuable recognition nationally and internationally. The Government should heed its call for an early meeting to discuss the NUI’s position on quality assurance, institutional coherence and the preservation of a resource which is of continuing value to the universities and to Ireland in general.