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Merge UCD with Trinity 'to create a top-10 uni'

PoorLY performing universities face having their budgets slashed under radical new reforms to be announced later this year, it can be revealed.

The new funding model could lead the way for the merging of some universities including the big two, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD).

With last week's announcement that the National University of Ireland (NUI) is to be abolished, 2010 will be a crunch year for Ireland's top seven colleges which are collectively in the red to the tune of €32m, according to latest figures. UCD and University College Cork (UCC) -- the worst offenders in terms of their spiralling debt with current deficits of €13m each -- have recently agreed a debt-cutting programme with the Higher Education Authority (HEA). As part of the deal, if the colleges can reduce their overall staff costs by 3 per cent a year then they can begin making appointments to vacated positions thus ending a resented moratorium on staff recruitment.

"Under law, universities are not permitted to accumulate deficits, but in recent years they have and some more than others. An agreement has been made with UCC and UCD to allow them to bring their debt under control while enabling them to fill senior posts. They can do what they like and appoint who they like as long as they reduce their budgets by 6 per cent by the end of next year," the HEA said. By making reductions in staff costs of about 3 per cent a year in 2009 and 2010, all seven universities will be in a position to reduce greatly or eliminate their accumulated current deficit by 2013.

The Sunday Independent understands that the National Strategy Group for Education is to recommend the ending of funding based on student numbers and move to a system that promotes efficiencies and improved performance. The group, which is being headed by Dr Colin Hunt, who is a former adviser to Taoiseach Brian Cowen, is to report to Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe before the summer recess.

Peter Sutherland, the chairman of Goldman Sachs who was speaking in Dublin last Friday, said Ireland can't afford seven universities if it hopes to have any world-class institutions. He said: "Surely seven is too many if we're talking about comprehensive world-class research universities with undergraduate education, postgraduate training and research. Personally I can't see how Ireland can afford this." Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: "We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn't that be the best thing for Ireland?"

Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe's "dawn raid" in announcing the NUI's abolition without telling anyone including the university's chancellor, Maurice Manning, or the institutions themselves, has angered many within the NUI. It said abolition will not save any money as a new and anonymous quango would still have to perform its functions. A senior NUI figure said: "They want to take a part of the education system that works well, costs little or no money, and has an established, world-wide reputation and destroy it. It makes no sense."

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