Croke Park is becoming a central location in the national conversation about our public services, and now, about our higher education institutions. The Jones Road venue has certainly witnessed no shortage of high-octane emotions over the past century, and to continue the sporting metaphor, there is still much left to play for in terms of the reform agreement.
Tom Boland’s address at the Transforming Public Services conference this week offers some interesting insights into the possible future direction of tertiary education in this country. His remarks are reported extensively in today’s Irish Independent.
To some, his comments that mergers and amalgamations amongst third level colleges are imminent will seem like a statement of the patently obvious; particularly when compared with international circumstances. I happen to be in this camp.
One has to question the viability of 21 universities and IoTs (not to mention other HEIs, such as NCI, the colleges of education, etc.) for a population of 4.3 million. That equates to 200,000 people per institution. By comparison, in the UK there are approximately 470,000 people per institution.
An alternative perspective would hold that scale should not be a defining feature of how we evaluate our education system. And, certainly ‘largeness’ is an insufficient metric of quality. However, higher education should not be immune from the need for greater efficiency and obtaining critical mass has to be a consideration in how we fund resource-intensive programmes and research.
The challenge then for the higher education strategy group will be to balance the demands of genuinely accessible higher education and an education system that is sufficiently resourced and geared to deliver a world-class service.