In Education Minister's 'Bolt Out of the Blue,' National U. of Ireland Faces Extinction

January 20, 2010

The National University of Ireland, a century-old federal institution that comprises some of the country's leading universities and colleges, including University College Dublin, is facing dissolution. Ireland's education minister, Batt O'Keeffe, announced the move on Wednesday, saying that the umbrella institution had outlived its usefulness and that "the need to have a separate body undertaking what is now a limited set of functions" no longer exists.

His announcement, which the university's registrar said in an interview on Thursday "came as a bolt out of the blue," led to a hastily convened meeting of the university's senate this afternoon. In a statement released after that session, the group "expressed regret at the minister's decision and in particular at the lack of consultation with the chancellor or with the presidents of the constituent universities before yesterday's announcement of the decision."

The National University of Ireland was established in 1908 and now consists of four universities and six colleges. At the outset, the central university held real authority to grant degrees and recognize courses, but its member institutions became largely autonomous and self-governing. In an increasingly competitive higher-education landscape, those institutions have also come to place greater emphasis on their individual identities and collegiate brands.

Attracta Halpin, the registrar and one of 15 staff members at the university's office in Dublin, said that, over time, "the federal structure was retained, but power devolved to the individual institutions, leaving a relatively small amount of power at the center." The university's current functions, she said, include providing "shared services" to its members.

"We produce all their degree parchments and also run awards competitions, from the undergraduate to the postdoctoral level," she said. Those awards allow the university to promote comparability of standards and reward academic excellence as a central unit. The university also supports academic publishing and gives grants to individual scholars, she said.

Printing Diplomas, Holding Meetings

The education minister's move to abolish the central university is based on a recommendation in a report prepared last year for the government by Colm McCarthy, an economics lecturer at University College Dublin. Reached by telephone today, Mr. McCarthy said that, over time, the university had become little more than a "ceremonial unit." It once had key administrative functions, he said, but each of its constituent members "is now big enough to run its own affairs, and they do in practice. But there still exists this kind of legacy organization, which really doesn't have anything much to do except for print diplomas and hold regular meetings."

Mr. McCarthy identified the central university for abolition in his report as a cost-cutting measure, to help deal with Ireland's severe fiscal crisis. His report estimates that discontinuing it would generate $4.3-million in annual savings. Ms. Halpin said that when she and the university's chancellor were summoned to meet with the minister on Wednesday, and were told of his intentions, they persuaded him of the inaccuracy of that estimate.

"The McCarthy report is all about saving money," she said, "and we've successfully argued that it will not, and the minister accepts that."

Rather than being financially motivated, the minister's move has more to do with the establishment of new quality-assurance mechanisms for Irish higher education, Ms. Halpin said.

In the statement released by the education ministry, Mr. O'Keeffe placed the abolition of the National University in the context of legislation being drafted to establish a new oversight agency for Irish higher education. "I am simplifying the qualifications and quality-assurance landscape by amalgamating existing agencies in that area," Mr. O'Keeffe said. "That pursuit of institutional coherence has led me to conclude that the NUI's role in higher education is no longer sustainable."

The university also plays an important cultural role, Ms. Halpin said, notably through a mandate that students at all its institutions fulfill an Irish-language requirement. The dissolution of the federal university will leave the decision to require Irish up to the individual universities and colleges, a step that could result in pressure on them to drop the requirement, she said.

Mr. McCarthy, who noted with pride his ability to speak Irish, was not swayed by the argument that allowing the university's constituent institutions more autonomy could result in too much autonomy. "It's up to each university to decide what they want to do," he said. "As for the Irish language, sadly, it has been in decline for about 200 years."

Ms. Halpin said that the university's senate and member institutions remained "committed to exploring ways of preserving what they believe is valuable" in the institution. In coming weeks, she said, they will be meeting "to articulate a common understanding of what they think is valuable."