Saturday 16 December 2017

Colleges told: merge or die

Major shake-up ahead for third-level system

Tom Boland has signalled that huge changes are on the way
Tom Boland has signalled that huge changes are on the way

John Walshe Education Editor

IRELAND has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State's third-level funding body has warned.

In a landmark address yesterday, Higher Education Authority (HEA) chief executive Tom Boland set out a reform agenda for the biggest ever shake-up of the country's third-level system.

The proposals are certain to form a key component of a new national strategy currently being prepared for the Government.

The strategy will recommend merging colleges and courses, sources said last night.

The Irish Independent has also learned that the strategy group is also considering the provision of new employment contracts; ending a number of programmes and courses; and more effective monitoring of academic staff.

Some colleges are already scrambling to position themselves in the battle for survival ahead.

However, last night third-level staff reacted to Mr Boland's speech with alarm.

Irish Federation of University Teachers general secretary Mike Jennings said the HEA chief had "let the cat out of the bag" about wanting to change lecturers' contracts.

He said it was ironic that Mr Boland's speech had been delivered to a conference on public services in Croke Park -- the same venue for the recently negotiated pay 'agreement', he said sought to give employers a "blank cheque" to change contracts.

"We were given an assurance that the redeployment of academic staff was not on -- but this is what Mr Boland seems to be suggesting. It's a non-starter," said Mr Jennings.

At present, there are 40 State-funded Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

These include 14 institutes of technology, seven universities, seven colleges of education which train teachers, seven other State-funded colleges such as the Tipperary Institute, and five recognised colleges of the National University of Ireland such as the National College of Art and Design.

Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally.

Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation

The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.

A practical example of this was the five publicly funded medical schools at UCD, NUI Galway, Trinity, UCC and the University of Limerick as well as the privately funded Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Although Mr Boland did not specifically refer to engineering, it is understood there is also concern over the fact that there are more than 30 engineering schools in the country, many with vacant places.


He said all institutions must be more strategic in their course offerings, collaborating as much with partner institutions and ending courses and programmes.

In a clear signal to colleges that major change is on the way, Mr Boland said we could no longer afford "the long lock-up of expensive facilities during summer". This will require reform of employment contracts, he added.

Mr Boland said colleges should enter into a quasi-contractual relationship with the State which would set out the deliverable "outputs" in return for specific public investment.

Failure to achieve targets would result in financial penalties.

As disclosed in the Irish Independent on March 3, full-time student numbers are now projected to grow from 155,000 at present to almost 190,000 within five years and to 270,000 by 2030 -- a 75pc rise.

"This requires a shift to more flexible teaching and learning techniques where students can study anytime and anywhere," Mr Boland added.

Meanwhile, the HEA chief executive also called for a single body to award higher education grants.

Many local bodies were unable to make grant decisions in a timely manner last year which led to stress among students and costs for the colleges, he added.

Irish Independent

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