The Minister has mentioned the problem of duplication on a number of occasions and has confused it with the proliferation of courses available through the CAO system. There is some link there of course – courses are developed without a system-wide strategic perspective (a price of autonomy?) – but there is also the reality that the world of education has evolved considerably in the last 30 years. Many fields of study have split, with some justification, into highly specialized sub-disciplines and, likewise, many new multidisciplinary programs have emerged. There is probably a good case to be made for many of these to be accessed by denominated entry. There is also the fact that many entirely new disciplines have emerged and many disciplines have even ‘graduated’ from Level 6/7 to include a Level 8 option.
Given the greater complexity of the third level education landscape, it is not surprising that some degree of duplication has emerged. The classic ‘solution’ to this problem is to merge and/or cluster institutions, pretending that this will fix the problem. This is a perfect example of ‘kicking the can down the road’ – changing the notepaper and passing the buck to someone else. Mergers are highly successful in the private sector where ‘downsizing’ is routine, but they rarely lead to savings or improvements of any kind when done in a public sector context.
If you want to reduce duplication, you have to tackle the detail. I would appoint someone (now!) who knows the third level system well, who has experience of teaching and research and who has a proven record in change management. I would get that person – a sort of ‘Duplication Tsar’, rather like the Cancer Tsar of the Health Service– to actually come up with a discipline-by-discipline plan for reducing duplication, starting perhaps with the Dublin colleges only. That person would have to somehow rationalize the system, suggesting acceptable mechanisms by which programmes could be wound down, staff could either retire early, seek voluntary redundancy or transfer between institutions, and do so in a way that does not damage research and teaching and doesn’t lead to IR mayhem. If workable, proposals would have to be backed by necessary legislation.
But there are many practical problems to be overcome here and that is all the more reason why we need to start doing this now. For example, if you want to consolidate the teaching of, say, mechanical engineering (which is taught in six third level institutions in Dublin!), how would you actually go about that? Would you end up moving equipment (which can be big) as well as staff? Would class sizes increase to unrealistic levels? Would this put excessive strain on the physical infrastructure in the ‘chosen’ institution(s)? Would many staff become redundant, albeit still in employment? We need to examine these things. Streamlining the system and eliminating unnecessary duplication means dealing with all the ‘hassly’ stuff. Too many policy makers, especially politicians, have far too much of a bird’s eye view of the systems that they manage; they are strategists when tacticians are needed; they are ‘Directors of Football’ when we need good coaches.
So if duplication is going to be reduced, it will be a slow painful process and it will have to be managed by a good tactician; not someone who takes the obvious route, merges institutions and walks away presuming that the problem is going to be solved by someone else. Unfortunately that approach is the norm in this country.
Let’s begin to look at the duplication problem now (because it’s going to take a while) and let’s get stuck into the hassly stuff. We might find that reducing duplication will not only reduce costs but improve quality as well.