irishtimes.comTHE DECISION by the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority to delay publication of a report on the future landscape of the third-level sector underlines the very radical nature of what was proposed. The report, compiled by an international panel made up of some of the leading world authorities on higher education and chaired by Prof Frans Van Vught of the European Commission, recommends a full merger between University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin and a major rationalisation across the sector.
The State’s 20-plus higher education colleges would be consolidated into just six. A new technological university based in Dublin and Waterford would also be established.
It’s important to note how the modus operandi of the Van Vught team was so different from traditional expert groups on education and much else. Normally, these tend to be comprised of stakeholders or vested interests from the particular sector under scrutiny. This was the case last year when the National Strategy for Higher Education or Hunt Report was published. Hunt was a very conservative document. While making the case for closer collaboration, it did not envisage a radical shake-up of existing structures. The Van Vught team, by contrast, was prepared without consultation with the colleges themselves. The HEA says this approach left the panel free to challenge current thinking and to present radical alternatives.
Van Vught and his team certainly grasped this opportunity but – given the angry and rapid response from the universities – it is difficult to envisage their proposals gaining much traction. Some university sources suggested the report had already been shelved. Certainly, it appears to be securing little in the way of official support. Last night, the Department of Education said the proposed UCD-TCD merger was “neither feasible nor desirable’’. The presidents of both DCU and NUIM have reassured staff the proposed merger of their two universities will not happen. TCD, which has still to receive a copy of the report, has stressed how the findings represent a significant departure from the Hunt Report and do not represent Government policy. Similar sentiments were expressed by the HEA in a statement to this newspaper yesterday.
All of this begs an obvious question – why was the Van Vught report commissioned in the first instance? The HEA and the Department of Education are in the process of implementing the Hunt Report – was it necessary to seek another set of proposals? Was it not abundantly clear this report always had the potential to destabilise a third-level sector already coping with a funding crisis and other difficulties? That said, this week’s turn of events in which the report was effectively buried is not good for Ireland’s international reputation in higher education circles. Prof Van Vught and his team are among the most distinguished figures on international higher education. Commissioning a report from them – and then rubbishing its contents – is scarcely international best practice.