Writing exclusively for The University Observer, NUI Chancellor Dr Maurice Manning argues that the proposed abolition of the NUI will devalue the UCD degree

Readers of The University Observer whose primary allegiance is – of course – to UCD may not have been too greatly distressed at the announcement of the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, that with the approval of the government, he plans to dissolve the National University of Ireland (NUI). However, as NUI Chancellor and as a graduate, former lecturer and currently adjunct professor in UCD, I believe that this is a bad decision, and not in the interests of UCD students.

UCD is a constituent university of the National University of Ireland. The other constituent universities are UCC, NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth. From 1908 until 1997, these were colleges in a single university. Under the Universities Act 1997, each of the four institutions became autonomous self-governing universities while remaining within a loose federal structure. Under the Act, the degrees awarded by the constituent universities are degrees of the National University of Ireland. In addition, RCSI, NCAD, IPA, Milltown Institute and Shannon College are recognised colleges of NUI and NUI awards degrees in those colleges.

UCD students should be concerned that the Government is planning to dissolve the university whose name and crest appear on their parchments. The reputation of the National University of Ireland has been built up over a century and valuable recognitions have been secured internationally for NUI degrees. This is of vital importance to graduates, particularly in medicine and health sciences. In many countries, having an NUI degree is an advantage in the jobs market. Approximately 7,000 students come to Ireland annually to study in NUI member institutions. The NUI degree is important in attracting them here. These students make a significant financial contribution to the universities and the economy, and on graduation they act as valuable ambassadors for Ireland overseas. In my view, dissolving the NUI will lessen the attractiveness of Ireland for these students.

The Minister acknowledges the value of the NUI brand. He plans to open discussions with the constituent universities to ensure the protection of the integrity and international reputation of NUI degrees. I fail to see how he will be able to do this convincingly without retaining the organisation at the centre of the federal university. NUI is the connective tissue that joins the constituent universities together and gives meaning to the concept of the NUI degree. It is the central forum of the University where the member institutions come together to share information, particularly in the interests of maintaining high standards.

Through their collaborative activities, NUI degrees are protected and promoted and the NUI brand is sustained. For these reasons, the four NUI constituent universities all support the retention of NUI. If the Constituent Universities become completely separate institutions, and the historic connection between them is removed, it is difficult to see how the shared titles of their degrees can retain their meaning. In other words, how you can have degrees of the National University of Ireland without a National University of Ireland?

Ireland is a speck on the world stage. To maximise their impact, Irish universities need to combine their energies and their resources. The NUI’s constituent universities have a lot in common deriving from their shared history and traditions. In its submission to the Higher Education Strategy Group, NUI recommended that the advantages of the federal structure as a vehicle for collaboration and international promotion should be further exploited. Rather than pursuing a policy that will lead to increased fragmentation the government should seek to promote greater collaboration between Irish universities.

NUI provides central services for the member institutions and other useful services for graduates, prospective students, schools and the general public. It maintains archives and registers (including the NUI Seanad Éireann register). Every year, NUI offers highly prestigious travelling studentships, fellowships, scholarships and other awards to students and graduates of the member institutions. (The current issue of UCD Today features details on the UCD students and graduates who were successful last year.) To terminate some of these activities and disperse others could not be considered a positive move.

As an institution NUI is older than the State, but is strongly associated with the State since its foundation. My predecessors as NUI Chancellor include Éamon de Valera, T. K. Whitaker and Garret FitzGerald. NUI plays an important role in supporting the language, history and culture of Ireland. It promotes academic excellence in its member institutions and provides significant support for academic publishing.

The Minister plans to establish a new ‘super agency’ for qualifications and quality assurance. The continuation of NUI is not in any way an impediment to the setting up of this new agency. NUI has assured the Minister that it will co-operate fully in any new framework for external quality assurance in universities.

NUI has been in existence since 1908. It has over 250,000 graduates in Ireland and throughout the world. Its name is well established. Its degrees enjoy a high level of recognition. It provides useful services and support for academic activity. It does not cost much to run and needless costs will be incurred by dismantling it. It is difficult to see what advantages would accrue to its member institutions, to higher education in Ireland or to Irish society through its dissolution. I call on the Minister and the Government to think again.