NOT A SINGLE Irish university made it into the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings this year, but reviving an old proposal might give Ireland more global clout in the academic sphere. While all rankings systems are on some level arbitrary, the THE takes into account the views of over 17,000 academics across the planet and gives us an insight into how institutions — and by extension their host countries — are perceived not only in academia but also in the perhaps more lucrative field of research and development.
Being pushed out of the top 100 doesn’t necessarily indicate that higher education in Ireland is in any crisis; it could merely reflect the comparative rise of other institutions in countries which are beginning to appreciate the value of academic research and institutional prestige. But a country shouldn’t rest on its laurels, and it’s worth asking: Is Ireland missing an opportunity to have a university of unquestionable world-class status?
Reflecting on the 2012 THE rankings, political commentator Richard Waghorne suggested via Twitter that it is high time that University College Dublin, Trinity, and Dublin City University were amalgamated into the University of Dublin. This is an idea with a long heritage which, even if it is to be rejected, needs to be considered seriously.
One could argue it goes back to the ‘Irish university question’ of the nineteenth century, but the first concrete proposal came in 1967 when the Fianna Fáil minister of education, Donogh O’Malley, announced the government’s intention to merge Trinity and UCD into a new, single, multi-denominational university. Each college was to have equal representation on the university senate, but the total property of both were to be transferred to the central body, undermining collegiate autonomy. With O’Malley’s sudden death, the plan was continued by his successor as minister, Brian Lenihan Snr.
Somewhat surprisingly, the governing body of Trinity were initially receptive (perhaps hoping to charm the Minister into retaining a stronger college structure) but opposition from students and academics alike grew on both campuses. Indeed, the colourful Lenihan, faced with a strident gang of protestors at Trinity, was said to have made a judicious escape through the window of a gent’s loo. Government enthusiasm faded as other matters took priority, and the merger was eventually laid to rest.
Much more recently, in 2010, we heard Peter Sutherland SC, the former attorney-general, advancing a TCD/UCD/DCU merger at a Royal Irish Academy event. “Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education, and training levels,” Sutherland argued, provoking a flurry of comments.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the president who put DCU on the map, retorted that there is “very little empirical evidence” to suggest a particular number of universities is appropriate to a particular country, while offering that evidence did suggest “maintaining high levels of quality is easier in smaller universities than in large ones”.
What, though, should an amalgamated TCD/UCD/DCU look like? First, a new university should not be created from nothing when an ancient one already exists: the University of Dublin. DU currently only has one college, Trinity, and very few people have any real conception of the difference between the University and the College. Yet in Trinity’s own founding statutes from 1592, it was already envisioned that the college would be the “mother of a university”, and bringing UCD and DCU into the University of Dublin alongside Trinity would be the fulfilment of a vision long established. Furthermore, DU is Ireland’s oldest university and this heritage would grant respect and dignity to an expanded university without preventing it from being cutting-edge.
Second, these three constituent colleges should maintain a great deal of autonomy and independence of spirit. This would have the advantage of preserving Trinity’s preeminent brand while encouraging an element of friendly rivalry and competition between colleges — something Oxford and Cambridge both enjoy. The cocky television academic Niall Ferguson has proffered that Europe’s pre-eminence came from its ability to maintain a suitable diversity in which different parts competed with each other and prioritised innovation in the process. Finding the right balance between cooperation and competition will, however, be difficult.
Thirdly, such a merger should not be a reductive cost-cutting measure. Rising institutional debt provides neither a sufficient nor appropriate grounds for merging these three places of learning, and the result would be little more than a shotgun wedding leaving all parties dissatisfied. Such an inauspicious creation would undermine the institutional confidence that the University of Dublin would need to thrive on the world stage. Ireland must believe it deserves a great university and be willing (on both a public and private) level to invest in it accordingly.
Finally, an expanded, world-class University of Dublin should be achieved by mutual respect and consent. The 1960s attempt exposed the errors of merger by government fiat. It should be a voluntary process over the course of perhaps a decade, accelerating or slowing down in accordance with the comfort of the involved partners.
“Suggesting that universities might have to merge or be closed makes them defensive and suspicious, just as they should be opening up to closer collaboration with others,” Dr von Prondzynski argues. “So the best thing we can do is probably to ignore such calls (and hope that others do, too) and get on with the agenda of strategic collaboration.”
Increasing “strategic collaboration” between institutions, then, should be the immediate priority. If that works out, then and only then can we maturely begin to lay the foundations of an expanded University of Dublin. Without that preliminary step, different institutional cultures will likely clash and collide — breaking rather than bending — leading to pressure to maintain the status quo.
Size or shape aren’t the ultimate point of this coming-together, but ensuring that Ireland has an undeniably world-class university for the education of our young and the expansion of human knowledge.
“In the end,” von Prondzynski concludes, “it is quality that counts.”