A REPORT prepared by leading international experts on the configuration of the higher education sector in Ireland has recommended a merger of the third-level institutions in Limerick, along with the Institute of Technology Tralee.
The report â€“ A Proposed Recon-figuration of the Irish System of Higher Education â€“was prepared by an international expert panel for the Higher Education Authority and presented in August, but has only now been green-lit to be published by the Department of Education.
It radically proposes the creation of four new universities in Ireland, with a proposed merger for the South-West to include the University of Limerick, Limerick Institute of Technology, Mary Immaculate College and Tralee Institute of Technology.
This university would have â€œan enrolment of 23,000 students and a budget of â‚¬286 million, including research grants and contracts valued at â‚¬50 millionâ€, the report, prepared by a group chaired by Frans van Vught of the European Commission, argues.
â€œThe rationale for the creation of comprehensive regional universities in the landscape of Irish higher education is that they will offer a higher quality and better-integrated set of services to students, businesses and communities in their regions,â€ say the group.
â€œEach would be well positioned to play a key leadership role in the economic, social and cultural vibrancy of the region of which it is a part to underpin the economic development of the region.â€
A number of reports were published late last week by the HEA, described as â€œa series of important documents that will assist in the implementation of the National Strategy for Higher Educationâ€.
â€œThese documents are particularly relevant to a reformed configuration of the HE system and to the future demand for higher education in Ireland,â€ said the HEA.
The documents will form a set of key inputs to engagement between the HEA and higher education institutions in early 2013, leading to advice to the Minister on system configuration by April 2013, it says.
Asked to respond on the proposals contained in the report, UL would only say that it would be â€œstudying these documents and looks forward to working with the HEA and partner institutions to develop the Third Level sector in accordance with national priorities and needsâ€.
Dr Maria Hinfelaar, LIT president â€“ who has previously proposed a merger of LIT, Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Tralee â€“ said: â€œWe very much welcome all efforts aimed at advancing educational opportunities for students, particularly when those solutions are in support of local economic development and achieving overall efficiencies in the third level sectorâ€.
â€œAt LIT we already have a proven track record of collaboration with Mary Immaculate College, Tralee IT and UL through the Shannon Consortium, which is achieving shared efficiencies. We have also submitted a proposal to work closely with Tralee and Cork in forming the Munster Technological University,â€ explained Dr Hinfelaar.
â€œWe are currently reviewing the International Panel Report and the other HEA documents and are awaiting a briefing of all institutions from the Minister for Education, Mr Ruairi Quinn, TD on this later this week on the ongoing process of defining the best way forward for the higher education sector in Ireland,â€ she added.
The Leader understands that a level of scepticism at the highest levels has greeted the recommendations of the report, particularly to the proposed mergers of universities with ITs. Minister Quinn has already said that another recommendation, a proposed merger of UCD and Trinity, is â€œneither feasible or desirableâ€.
Briefing notes accompanying the HEA report admits that the â€œprocess is still ongoing and no system configuration can be implied as yetâ€.
It argues however that â€œreform of the higher education system will contribute to the capacity of the system to meet demand and to quality outcomes for students. There is evidence of a healthy appetite for such reform in the institutions themselves, so Ireland has a window of opportunityâ€.