SECRET talks have begun between four colleges which could lead to a combined 'super institute of technology' for the greater Dublin area.
The Irish Independent has learned that the four presidents and chairs of the governing bodies of the respective colleges met recently, and more meetings are expected.
The open-ended discussions involve the Dublin Institute of Technology, the institutes of technology in Tallaght and Blanchardstown, and the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Between them, they have more than 25,000 full-time students.
Initially the emphasis will be on greater collaboration in the provision of courses to avoid unnecessary duplication and allow greater specialisation.
Sharing of services such as IT and human resources will also lead to cost savings and eventual staff reductions. But sources believe that in the medium term, the talks will lead to one overall institute.
If the four Dublin ITs were amalgamated, then existing campuses would remain in situ, but could become home to more specialised departments of one overall institute.
For students, there might be a reduced choice of courses and increased travel involved in attending one super IT. College chiefs are examining the needs of the greater Dublin area, where student numbers are expected to grow significantly, with more adults returning to part-time courses to upskill.
Similar talks are taking place elsewhere around the country. The Cork Institute of Technology said there was a high level of interaction between educational institutions and regular meetings about collaboration.
"These meetings are ongoing and discuss a wide level of issues such as shared services, research and joint course development," a spokesman said.
Sources said the various talks were influenced by precedents of alliance and collaboration by TCD-UCD, or NUI Galway and University of Limerick.
The setting up of the Shannon Consortium of third-level colleges has also been influential.
But the talks are also prompted by the forthcoming report on the national strategy for higher education, whose chair Dr Colin Hunt gave some broad hints this week of the direction the report was heading.
He told a conference in Dublin City University that Ireland had a large number of higher education institutions.
"The CAO handbook lists nearly 40 institutions offering undergraduate courses. Many of these are very small," he said, adding that the overhead costs for colleges were increasing as they were required to improve performance.
"Quality assurance systems, performance management systems, systems for staff training and development, student feedback systems are all essential but also costly. In such a context, very small institutions face real challenges," he said.
Dr Hunt said there was a need to re-examine the ways colleges were managed, especially given the projected growth in student numbers from 160,000 at present to over 200,000 by 2020 and to nearly 275,000 in 20 years' time.
He did not foresee the end of the campus experience but predicted that many students would demand opportunities to learn in a place and a time of their own choosing, especially those who were availing of higher education to retrain.