There has been a flurry of documents from the HEA recently, the latest being this one on Completing the Landscape Process for Higher Education. I’m very conscious that it’s easy to sit back and criticise but one has to wonder if this is the best that the HEA can come up with. When I read this document, a picture came into my head of a group of people sitting around a map of Ireland with little, colour-coded dots on it to denote the many third level institutions. Then, on the basis of mainly geographical factors, circles are drawn around these dots and, hey presto, they are merged. Apart from geographical factors, the only strategy I can discern is to merge some of the smaller colleges of education, music, art etc. with some of the Universities and to merge some of the IoTs with a view to their developing into Technical Universities. This ‘indicative’ strategy could have been formulated in 10 minutes.
All of this reminds me of how politicians respond to all sorts of economic and social issues. If a politician is asked what he/she thinks should be a done about a problem, he will usually reply with a plan to set up a strategy group or a new organisation to deal with the particular problem. In other words, the politician has no ideas but stalls for time by shifting the problem onto someone else.
This is effectively what the HEA is doing. It proposes various mergers on the basis of very little, knows that there will be resistance (for good reason) and the ‘blame’ will be placed on the third level institutions. The HEA will be the good guys. The third level institutions will be portrayed in the media as being terrified of change and driven by self-interest. The usual columnists will ‘have a go’.
Proposing mergers is easy but implementing those mergers is horrendously difficult. The logistics are hugely challenging unless one wants to create dysfunctional organisations like the HSE. In the private sector, the process is largely determined by the simple desire to improve profits and is relatively easy. But, as Albert Reynolds once said to one of the Smurfits: “There’s more to running a country than making boxes”. Likewise, merging educational institutions is not like merging widget factories.
The HEA needs to think about this in a completely different way. Instead of using this ‘route one’ tactic, it needs to nudge the institutions into a position where it is in the interests of everyone that institutions should get together. Mergers should be the end of the process, not the beginning, and only if a full merger is absolutely necessary. There is an argument to be made that smaller, well-structured organisations with critical masses in a small number of areas, might actually be more effective and efficient than large, bureaucratic ones. Caltech is the classic example of a small but world-class institution.
If I were doing this, I’d start by having a moratorium on the development of new programmes – we already have over 700 Level 8 programmes in the CAO system. We don’t need more. Then, I’d begin the detailed process of looking at the institutions at the discipline level. Geographical factors would have to be considered of course. I’d look at student numbers, CAO points, staffing levels, research activity and mission drift in the IoT sector. I’d try to figure out what programmes and departments were sustainable and then incentivize the institutions to start collaborating with a view to associating at the discipline and/or programme level. To have any meaning, this would have to involve the elimination of programmes and departments and the movement of staff between organisations, including the movement of willing staff between the IoT and University sectors. You might find that some institutions might be quite happy to rid themselves of certain disciplines and many staff might be quite happy to move. (I fancy a move to Dublin 4 myself!) Full mergers might follow in time but the important thing is that duplication would be minimised and leaner, tighter organisations would emerge.
This doesn’t have to take an eternity but it will take time if it is to be done properly. It needs people to buy into it and it will take some very capable people to drive it.