THE number of publicly-funded third-level colleges in Ireland is to be cut from 39 to 15 in the biggest ever shake-up of higher education.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has proposed a radically altered third-level landscape aimed at improving quality, meeting demand and getting better value for money.
Colleges will have to merge or get involved in closer collaborations, either on a regional level or on the basis of specialism.
Initially, the HEA envisages a reduction to 24 colleges, but ultimately it wants just 15, which, in turn, would be part of five regional clusters.
The HEA board yesterday agreed the proposals and its senior officials will now consult with colleges before a recommendation is presented to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn in March.
While some dialogue will take place, colleges have little scope to opt out of the final arrangement, as future funding will depend on being part of the required change.
There are no plans to merge universities, but the HEA said "significant consolidation" was envisaged among institutes of technology.
A number of formal alliances have already emerged in this sector and some of these partnerships have made submissions to be promoted to the proposed new Technological University status. In other cases, it suggests that institutes of technology, or other small colleges, come in under the wing of a university in the region.
The HEA finalised its plans after first asking the colleges to come up with ideas about how they could contribute to a reform of the sector.
At a meeting last November, Mr Quinn made clear that some submissions were based on "wishful thinking" and had fallen short of what was required in the national interest.
The HEA said a key objective of the reconfiguration was to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes, while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders.
A particular focus of regional collaboration will be joint academic planning, that would, for instance, lead to the elimination of wasteful duplication of courses.
The 39 colleges currently receive over €1bn a year and have 170,000 students enrolled but student numbers are set to rise dramatically in coming years.
The 39 include the teacher-training colleges and work is already under way on reducing their number from 19 to six through a series of mergers with universities, including an Institute of Education involving both UCD and TCD.
A review of the provision of creative arts programmes at third-level in the Dublin area is also due to finish soon and will feed into the reconfiguration process.
Unnecessary duplication of courses in engineering, business and law in both the universities and institutes of technology (ITs) is costing the State millions every year.
Although not covered by yesterday's document, down the line, reform of the third-level sector will also include issues such as staffing, the length of the academic year and the thorny issue of funding and whether students should contribute more.