Restructuring the third level sector

The whole question of restructuring the third level sector is in the news these days. The Minister wants reform and less duplication of courses. Who can argue with that? All very reasonable.

Actually, I recently had a quick glance at the HEA report on the future of the third level landscape and while I have issues with specific aspects of it (and am generally sceptical of the value of repeatedly fiddling with organisational structures), it had a sensible tone to it. My main problem with this kind of report is that they tend to take such a bird’s eye view of the issue they are addressing. The HEA report advocates a whole series of mergers (UCD and TCD!) but the proposals seem to be driven primarily by geographical factors and notions of scale.

The current drive towards reorganisation of the sector is understandable, though, because our education system has become a monster, one that the state can’t really afford. I’ve said it before but, for me, the primary problem is the over participation at third level – or at least at honours degree level. Of course, you cannot say this in public without the accusation of being elitist. The argument is that people have a ‘right’ to third level education and everyone should be given the opportunity to participate. But, here are some figures on CAO points for the IOT sector, obtained from

Table 1 Entry Points in the IOT Sector (2012)

Institute Number of Level 8 Courses Percentage of courses*with points below 300
Athlone 13 46
Carlow 27 37
Cork 29 24
Dublin 66 20
Dundalk 12 0 (5 courses on 300 pts.)
Galway-Mayo 14 29
Blanchardstown 14 64
Sligo 14 64
Tallaght 17 79
Tralee 11 27
Letterkenny 11 73
Limerick 26 50
Waterford 31 35

*Excludes courses with a portfolio or interview component

These Institutes are delivering over 100 Level 8 programmes for which, in my view, there is an insufficient supply of suitably qualified entrants. The numbers suggest to me that we have gone well past the point where dumbing down becomes inevitable. Furthermore, there are clearly two tiers within the IOT sector and consequently, there is a serious need to look at these Institutes and their mission.

I would suggest the following:

  •  Eliminate all programmes with points below 300. There is no market for them.
  • The Institutes in bold above should stop offering honours degree programmes and deliver diplomas and general vocational training.
  • Create some sort of University in the South East, incorporating the best programmes from Cork, Waterford and Carlow. Retain Carlow and Cork as slimmed down local vocational colleges.
  • Incorporate GMIT into NUIG. Retain the outlying campuses for vocational training.
  • Incorporate Dundalk IT into DCU
  • Incorporate Tralee IT and Limerick IT into UL.

But this will never happen. Despite the obvious problems in the IOT sector, and, indeed, in the University sector, there is huge political and social pressure on the third level sector to increase its throughput. Third level for all seems to be the goal. University and Institute Departments devise courses to meet a non-existent demand largely because it maintains or increases their budgets and justifies their staff numbers. Of course, lecturing staff don’t want to overburden themselves, so new programmes incorporate existing modules as much as possible. Consequently, cutting-and-pasting is a key part of programme design. This process has permeated into the Taught Masters scene. Everyone likes these because they can be lucrative, especially if you can attract non-EU students. Many of these Masters programmes are of marginal benefit to anybody, and of dubious academic quality, but to eliminate them could have catastrophic consequences for budgets, leading to the loss of contract staff. And round it goes; more staff to teach more courses, more courses to keep and recruit more staff. And the monster gets bigger and bigger.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Restructuring the third level sector

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Restructuring the third level sector

  2. cyberrandt says:

    Some well said but wounding words here – a lot of which I really do agree with! – By the way, have a missed something above or has IADT, Dun Laoghaire fallen off the table altogether?

    • foleyg says:


      Thanks for comment. Omitted Dun Laoghaire by mistake!. You’ve a lot of courses with a portfolio element so you’re a little different from other Institutes. Of the five CAO-only courses you offer, 2/5 are below the 300 mark.


      educationandstuff wrote: > New comment on your post “Restructuring the third level sector” > Author : cyberrandt (IP: , > E-mail : > URL : > Whois :

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