Universities propose regional cluster plan


University Presidents have proposed a regional cluster plan in response to pressure from the government and higher education authorities to restructure third-level institutions in Ireland. The proposal comes in response to the publication of the Hunt report in January 2011, which proposed a reduction in the number of higher education providers in Ireland, and a Higher Education Authority report, proposing a merger of several universities in Ireland.

Under the proposal, third-level institutes would reconfigure into five regional clusters, North/West, Mid-West, South, Dublin/North-East/Midlands and Dublin, with UCD falling into the final category. The Higher Education Authority will publish its own “draft configuration” of the system shortly.

The arrangement aims to reduce the cost of education by removing duplication of courses from similar regions. It would also allow colleges to share resources via web and videoconferencing, as well as sharing specialist staff and offering students a wider range of facilities without incurring huge costs.

The proposal from the Irish Universities Association, the umbrella body for the universities, states that the goal is “to enhance the student experience and optimise the efficiency and effectiveness of educational provision within the cluster by facilitating joint planning of educational provision and effective inter-institutional collaboration; to promote collaboration and to ensure critical mass in research and more effective knowledge transfer and commercialisation; to engage more coherently and systematically with stakeholders.”

The proposal meets the criteria which Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn set down recently in a speech, saying that “There is a need to achieve critical mass through consolidation and collaboration and the development of regional clusters.”

Key to the clusters proposal is that collaborating universities stick to core operating principals and internal management regulations. According to the Presidents, the clusters should have a formal governance structure, comprising the relevant senior officers of the member institutions together with the “rules of engagement” which comply with individual institutional governance and autonomy.

Wholesale changes in management at any of the institutions are unlikely, as the proposal also says that third-level institutes should remain “autonomous institutions operating through their established management structures”.

NUI Galway President Jim Browne called on the Education Minister to fast-track the regional cluster initiative, adding that the cluster in the west, the category which NUIG falls under, could be completed within the next year.

The proposals from the Presidents are unlikely to win favour among some institutes of technology, who are seeking reconfiguration as a technological university, a move which university presidents oppose.