Higher education reform

The HEA has published its plans for reforming higher education in Ireland. A high level summary is here. There are two more substantive documents (here and here) that partly overlap. There are two core ideas. First, “technological universities” are introduced. Presumably, these will replace the “institutes of technology”. This is to large degree a matter of relabelling. If this satisfies the demands to have a university in every county then so be it. Ireland would follow the international trend to call each and any 3rd level education entity a “university”. Besides, some (many?) of the ITs already grant PhDs and are thus universities in all but name.

The second idea is more controversial. The HEA wants consolidation, through associations, clusters and mergers. Indeed, technological universities will come from a “consolidation of two or more institutions”. On the one hand, it is high time to rationalize the bewildering number of institutions in higher education. I have argued that there too many, small economic departments. Similarly, Irish business schools are too small to credibly support a broad curriculum. There is a fixed cost to running a department, and small department spent a disproportionate amount of time on administration.

On the other hand, scale for scale’s sake is silly. The HEA is not particularly clear about what research and teaching should (not) be consolidated and why.

I would argue that, for research, 2-3 centres per subdiscipline is plenty. For teaching, 3-4 locations for a bachelor’s, and 2-3 for master’s and PhD is enough — per discipline. For those activities, quality beats location. I’d rather talk to / be taught by a good researcher / professor than the one next door. Silicon Valley is not because it is close to any old university, but because it is close to Stanford. For evening and weekend classes, and more vocational training, you do want close ties to local businesses and therefore a denser network of locations.

UPDATE: The Independent reports on the race to become the first Technological University.

The Examiner reports that the president of Cork IT thinks that TU are too university-like. Cork IT is, I presume, free to remain an Institute of Technology. As it would be one of few ITs, it would be free to re-define the IT concept in Dr Murphy’s image.

The Examiner also notes that “distance from home is a major factor in third level participation”. I would argue that people should be prepared to travel for a quality education.