HETL Global Communities

Merging Irish Higher Educational Institutions: Rationale, Implementation and Impact

March 28, 2015 in Volume 5

HETL Note: As in most countries around the world, the Irish higher education system is undergoing extensive structural changes. In this feature article, Marie Finnegan reviews these major structural changes using documentary analysis research methodology. More specifically, the author focuses on how the merger process impacts on instructional practices and examines the implications of the merger policies and processes with respect to its potential impact on future economic and social prosperity and in shaping a new higher education landscape in Ireland. This paper may provide a meaningful case study analysis for other nations as they restructure their systems of higher education.

Marie Finnegan ImageAuthor Bio: Marie Finnegan is a lecturer in economics at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland. She has a number of years’ experience as an economist in financial markets and in economic development policy. She specialises in Teaching and Learning, Central Banking and Finance and Capital Markets. She has joint responsibility for programme development within the School of Business. Marie was awarded the President’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2008. Marie sits on the Governing Body of GMIT and was a founding member of the steering group for the Centre for Education Development in GMIT in 2013. Marie may be contacted at [email protected] .


Merging Irish Higher Educational Institutions: Rationale, Implementation and Impact

Marie Finnegan

Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, Ireland



Higher education in Ireland is undergoing structural change with a shift towards clusters of higher education providers and the merging of some higher educational institutions. The merger process is in its infancy with the first multi campus universities not due until 2018. The research aim is to consider the merger process to help ensure that it produces an optimal outcome. The research methodology used is a documentary analysis of the concept of mergers in all the key policy documents and communications and in the higher education literature. The paper raises a number of concerns regarding the merger policy appraisal process and calls for a fresh commitment to best practice in this regard. It outlines a number of factors that need to be managed when Irish higher education institutions do merge, drawing on lessons from the international higher education literature. It also considers the impact of mergers on teachers and offers some remedies based on the literature. It is hoped that this paper will facilitate a more open policy dialogue with government, academia, external specialists and stakeholders as Ireland embarks on its new higher education landscape.

Keywords: Irish Higher Education Research Institutions, Education and Development, Government Education Policy, Merging Higher Education Institutions, Impact of Mergers on Teachers in HEIs.


The higher education system in Ireland is currently undergoing substantial structural change. This drive for structural transformation has its basis in The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 published in January 2011 (DES, 2011). This report sought to provide a basis for Government policy on the development of higher education in Ireland over the coming decades. Central to this strategy is the development of clusters of higher education providers across the country. The merger of some institutions of higher education is core to the implementation of this cluster based strategy.

The driving force behind mergers is always one form or another of assumed gain. However, empirical studies show that “praxis and theory do not always converge concerning mergers in different countries and that experience with mergers has varied” (Skodvin, 1999, p. 71). The merger process across Irish higher educational institutes is in its infancy and the first of Ireland’s multi campus technological universities will not be created until at least 2018 (Riegel, 2014). It is opportune, therefore, to consider the merger process to help ensure that it produces an optimal outcome that is fit for purpose over the coming decades. This paper seeks to contribute to this process by engaging in a documentary analysis of the concept of mergers in recent Irish higher education policy documents and the international higher education literature.

This paper is structured into six sections. The first section seeks to position the cluster approach to Irish higher education in the economics literature and outline the relationship between clusters and mergers. The second section considers the rationale for merging institutions of higher education in Ireland. The third section critically assesses the policy appraisal process for merging institutions. The fourth section identifies some factors that need to be managed in the merger implementation process. The fifth section considers some impacts of this policy approach on teachers in higher education drawing lessons from the international higher educational literature to help inform teaching and learning in the newly merged institutions. The final part offers some concluding remarks.


Cluster theory has been at the helm of regional economic development theory and practice for the past three decades (Porter, 1998; Porter, 2000; Krugman, 2000; Rosenfeld, 2005; Wolman and Hincapie, 2010). The concept of clustering in corporations has been well documented. Porter (1998, p.197) defines clusters as geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities. In terms of educational institutions, their membership in clusters is seen to have two important roles in furthering economic development. These include labor market training institutions providing training for workers in the cluster relevant skills and research institutions engaging in cluster relevant research.

For example, Porter (2000, p.254) proposes that “clusters also include a number of institutions, governmental or otherwise, that provide specialized training, education, information, research, and technical support (universities, think tanks, vocational training providers)”. Wolman and Hincapie (2010, p.4) suggest that clusters include public or private institutions that provide services to cluster members, for example, customised training by community colleges and universities. This presence should result in cost-savings to firms and/or knowledge spillovers that produce cost savings and/or product or process innovations. Hazelkorn (2010, p.70) suggests that such clusters have the ability to “maximise collective capacity beyond individual capacity”.

The explicit elevation of clusters as a policy priority for higher education in Ireland first came to light in the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (DES, 2011). However, alliances in the delivery of higher education and research have had a legislative basis since 1992. In particular, the Regional Technical College Act (1992) suggests that Institutes of Technology (IoTs) can “enter into arrangements with other institutions in or outside the State for the purpose of offering joint courses of study and of engaging jointly in programmes of research, consultancy and development work” (1992, s.5). In addition, IoTs can “enter into arrangements, including participation in limited liability companies, to exploit any research, consultancy or development work undertaken by a college either separately or jointly” (1992, s. 5). In practice, collaboration across HEIs has evolved over many years. For example, Harkin and Hazelkorn (2014, p.3) document a number of programmes that have promoted collaboration across the HEIs both within and across the binary divide in both research and strategy over the period 1996-2011.

However, the national strategy document (DES, 2011) gives collaboration a new policy focus. In particular, the report recommends that the higher education system “should be strengthened by the development of regional clusters of collaborating institutions (universities, IoTs and other providers), and by institutional consolidation that will result in a smaller number of larger institutions” (DES, 2011, p.15). Indeed, the report suggested that there is “significant potential for higher education institutions to influence national and regional competitiveness and to play a key role in the development of industry clusters” (DES, 2011, p.76). Harkin and Hazelkorn (2014, p.4) mark this shift in policy focus as collaboration via incentivisation to collaboration via steering.

Clusters versus mergers

The official line from the HEA is that “mergers may or may not take place but regional clusters must develop” (HEA, Feb. 2012, p. 23). The HEA argues that … “mergers should only happen after a careful case has been made, based on an academic plan, and after consideration of cost benefit has taken place. Where such mergers can be justified, the creation of a new and stronger institution should enhance, rather than detract from, the regional cluster” (HEA, Feb. 2012, p. 23-24).

Furthermore, the incentive structure in place is to reward collaboration on the development of clusters. For example, in 2014, €4m is top-sliced from the overall grant from central government and used to reward HEIs which demonstrate exemplars of good practice in establishing regional clusters and in meeting the related objectives of shared academic planning and student pathways (HEA, Dec. 2013b). However, it would seem that the primary mechanism for fostering clusters has been interpreted as the merging of Institutes of Technology (IoTs) with a view to becoming technological universities (TUs). Indeed, three groups of institutes of technology have expressed interest in merging and applying to become a technological university.  Table 1 shows these three groupings.


Table 1 TU applicant groupings

TU applicant grouping


The Dublin Institute of Technology

Institute of Technology Tallaght

Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown


< 23,738 students

< 2,433 staff

< Income of €250 million

< Research income of €20 million

The Cork Institute of Technology

Institute of Technology, Tralee


< 11,900 students

< 1,283 staff

< Income of €135 million

< Research income of €16 million

The Waterford Institute of Technology

Carlow Institute of Technology

< 12,943 students

< 1,249 staff

< Income of €122 million

< Research income of €19 million

Source: http://www.hea.ie/ga/node/738.


However, in October 2014, the third group comprising Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology suspended all activities in relation to a planned merger in what would have been a necessary step to achieve designation as a technological university (Humphreys and Kane, 2014).

A fourth group, comprising Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology; Sligo Institute of Technology and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, have indicated that they are deepening their existing alliance with a view to merge in the medium term (DES, Jan 2014).The process of enabling legislation for this merger process began in January 2014 when the Heads of a Bill, which will allow for the future establishment of TUs and the mergers of IoTs nationwide, was published (DES, 2014). Therefore, it seems likely that merged institutes of technologies will be a key feature of the new Irish higher education landscape.

Mergers of HEIs – Rationale

A merger provides for the establishment of an Institute of Technology through the “dissolution and amalgamation of existing Institutes of Technology with the new entity being a body corporate and having a legal entity in its own right” (DES, 2014, p.36). Harman and Meek (2002) cite some reasons why higher educational institutes might merge in an international context and these, at first glance, closely mirror the pressure for change in an Irish context. These include the need to increase efficiency and effectiveness, increase government control of the overall direction of higher education systems, deal with problems of non-viable institutions and institutional fragmentation and widen student access and implement more broad scale equity strategies (Harman and Meek, 2002, p.1). However, on closer analysis, the rationale for mergers in an Irish context is less clear.

In terms of increasing efficiency and effectiveness, student numbers are expected to grow. However, recent projections produced by the DES lie substantially below the previous DES projections that were used in the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (ESRI, 2012, p. vi). The Economic and Social Research Institute argues that consequently, any policy suggestions centred on the projections contained in this national strategy document require re-examination (ESRI, 2012, p. vi). Furthermore, it has been argued that higher education in Ireland is already relatively efficient. St Aubyn et al (2009) showed that Ireland came first out of twenty eight countries in terms of the number of graduates per 1,000 inhabitants and scored second out of twenty seven countries in terms of graduates per academic staff member (St. Aubyn et al, 2009, p.24).

Increasing control of the overall direction of higher education is clearly an aspiration of the national strategy. For example, the strategy argues that it is important that “investment is aligned with national policy priorities, that it enhances the attainment of identified objectives, and that institutions can account for the funding they receive in terms of the performance and education outcomes they achieve” (DES, 2011, p. 116). Indeed, the government seeks to use public funding to drive forward the matching of performance to national objectives (HEA, December 2013b). However, the link between merged HEIs and the alignment of institutional and national objectives is never made explicit.

In terms of widening student access and implementing more broad scale equity strategies, the national strategy documents the need to widen “access to higher education by people from lower socio-economic backgrounds or other under-represented groups” (DES, 2011, p. 12). However, the strategy does not suggest how merged HEIs might help to meet this objective. Indeed, the report suggests that Ireland has a large number of higher education institutions, some of which are relatively small and that this has, in fact, facilitated widespread access to higher education (HEA, 2011, p. 101).

Policy Appraisal Process for Merging Institutes

Proper policy appraisal is necessary to ensure that the correct policy decisions occur and that value for money is protected. Policy appraisal involves being clear about the objectives of the proposal and consideration of all the options available in meeting these objectives. The Irish government public spending code outlines seven standard steps in the appraisal process which helps to ensure the perusal of the best policy option (DPER, 2014).

The first step is outlining the objectives of the proposal. The HEA has outlined two related key objectives for each cluster: shared academic planning and student pathways. The second step involves exploring the options that can achieve these objectives including the ‘status quo’ option. The third step involves identifying the relevant costs and benefits for each option. The fourth step involves an analysis of the main options while the fifth step identifies the risks associated with each option. The sixth step is a decision on the preferred option. The final step is implementation of the preferred option. There is a concern that the policy appraisal process has skipped some fundamental steps and has, infact, jumped to the implementation stage. The third step, quantifying costs and benefits of the various options, is especially conspicuous in its absence. This is even more so when we consider that the HEA require that mergers may happen ‘only… after consideration of cost benefit has taken place’ (HEA, Feb. 2012, p. 24).

The upfront costs of mergers are likely to be substantial. There is agreement in the literature that “mergers are very time consuming and resource intensive processes – before, during and after the actual event – and that this is underestimated more often than not” (Locke, 2007, p.89). The Department for Education and Skills in the UK found that mergers were very costly and that financial benefits were only seen in the very long term, if at all (DES, 2003). Payne (2008, p.18) argues that substantial “cost savings from mergers in any sector are difficult to achieve” while the Higher Education Funding Council for England (2010, p.4) suggested that “merging institutions should be realistic and should not underestimate the likely costs of the process or overestimate the potential savings”. Certain costs seem inevitable. For example, the HEA (2012) suggest that it seems inevitable that some new forms of “shared organisational or governance arrangement might have to arise within participating institutions” in order to make the merged entities operate (HEA, February, 2012, p.22). In addition, there will be costs in upskilling staff to doctorate level and coordinating teaching and learning across campuses.

Other costs also need to be considered. Deadweight costs occur when the increased output of the merger would have happened anyway irrespective of the merger. For example, could the cluster objectives of shared academic planning and student pathways (HEA, December 2013b) be met in the absence of mergers? Displacement costs occur when the creation of positive outputs from the merger lead to a loss of output in another. For example, as management in the institutions divert their efforts to consolidate their bid to become TUs, they may forgo the benefits accruing from focusing on the delivery of their core mission.

In terms of benefits, these new TUs are charged with improving the delivery of higher education to students and achieving economies of scale. However, these benefits have never been clearly articulated. The Department of Education and Skills does outline the potential benefits of building regional clusters of educational institutions. The report suggests that “clusters allow programmers of teaching and learning to be better planned and organised; they use resources efficiently; they allow greater flexibility in student pathways and opportunities for progression; and they provide more coordinated services to enterprise in their region” (DES, 2011 p. 96). However, the benefits of merged IoTs are only vaguely alluded to. In May 2011, the Minister for Education and Skills suggested that “there are untapped capacities within the IoTs and the creation of a very small number of technological universities has the potential to release those”. In terms of economies of scale, there could be savings with regard to the amalgamation of some functions such as finance and human resources. However, these savings need to be costed while taking into account the reality that many staff hold tenure and job losses cannot occur in the short to medium term. It is worth noting that the IoTs already share services across some IT functions.

Adherence to best practice in policy appraisal is more likely to lead to the correct policy decisions being made. At the very least, the sector needs to engage in cost benefit analysis to ensure that the decisions made are, in fact, the correct ones and that the new TUs are not simply institutes with “new status without new substance” (Minister for Education and Skills, May 2011).

Determinants of Successful Mergers

The literature suggests that there are a number of factors that need to be carefully managed as the higher educational institutions engage in merger activity.

Choice of a merger partner

Botha (2001) identifies the choice of a merger partner as a key factor in determining the success of a merger. In Ireland, higher education has traditionally followed a binary system which allocates university education and vocational training to separate institutions. In Ireland, the two institutional types are traditional universities and IoTs, which were primarily opened in the early 1970s. These IoTs were originally called Regional Technical Colleges with the Institute of Technology title conferred in the 1990s. There are currently 14 IoTs and 7 universities.

The national strategy for higher education (DES, 2011) asserts that there is a strong mission differentiation between these two providers and that this diversity has served Ireland well (DES, 2011). The strategy further suggests that HE provision should “Retain and improve the diversity of institutional missions” (DES, 2011, p. 97) and that “formal mergers between IoTs and universities should not in general be considered: this would be more likely to dilute the diversity of the system” (DES, 2011, p. 99). However, several arguments can be made that this diversity of mission is, at best, surface deep and that the two sectors are, in fact, broadly similar.

First, both sectors seek to provide education and training provision. The IoTs (a) seek to “provide such courses of study as the governing body of the college considers appropriate” (1992, s.5) while the universities seek “to advance knowledge through teaching” and to “to promote learning in its student body and in society generally” (1997, s. 12). Second, while according to the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 act, the IoTs focus on vocational and technical education, there are many universities that also provide vocational and technical education. For example, the National University of Ireland provides programmes in nursing and hotel management. Third, almost all IoTs deliver degree, master and even doctoral level education over a range of disciplines. This academic drift, a concept used to describe the academisation processes of non-university educational institutions, is relatively common across binary systems (Daraio et al., 2011) and tends to result in greater homogeneity across the sector (Griffioen and  de Jong, 2013).

Fourth, they both engage in research. The universities seek “to advance knowledge through…scholarly research and scientific investigation” (1997, s. 12) and “to disseminate the outcomes of its research in the general community” (1997, s. 12) while the IOT sector “may… engage in research, consultancy and development work” (1992, s. 5). However, here there is a real diversity of mission, as the research profile and output of traditional universities surpasses that of IoTs. The IoTs are traditionally teaching institutes while the university sector focus on both research and teaching. Indeed, academic roles are clearly prescribed in IoTs where all staff across the sector teach 18-20 hours a week while roles in the university sector are more ambiguous. University contracts do not stipulate the number of teaching hours that are required to be fulfilled by academic staff (Aarrevarra et al, 2013, p.278-79) and research is a key criteria for scholarly recognition and promotion. It is worth noting that as IoTs seek to strengthen their application to become TUs, they will have to increase their research capacity. This is likely to dilute the diversity that currently exists as IoTs will be seeking research funding from the same sources as the traditional universities.

The OECD suggests that diversity “implies that distinct courses or institutions serve distinct objectives, receiving and responding to distinct streams of students” (OECD, 1998, pp.40–41). While it is accepted that diversity must be at the core of higher education, it can be argued that the delivery mechanism does not have to be constrained to different institutions serving different students. For example, the Sate University of New York spans 64 campuses which include university centres and doctoral degree institutions, university colleges, technology colleges and community colleges.

The HEA commissioned an international panel report on a proposed reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education which was published in August 2012. The panel concluded that the merging of traditional universities and IoTs in geographically concentrated areas would be most likely “to protect and improve on the diversity and quality that already exists, while promoting a level of international engagement that is consistent with the country’s funding capacities” (HEA, Aug, 2012, p. 9). The international panel refers to the requirement to retain this binary divide as ‘artificial barriers between institutional types’ (HEA, Aug, 2012, p. 13).

The national strategy seeks to encourage mergers between universities and IoTs when it is cross border between the North and South of Ireland (DES, 2011), a rather arbitrary distinction. Harman (2002, p.99) suggests that when mergers across the binary divide occurred in Australia ‘facets of their uncomplimentary cultures collided head-on in many institutions’. However, these challenges could be addressed when strong leadership was evident. It is suggested here that the optimal membership of merged higher educational institutions should not conform “to a rigid formula that is driven by form rather than function” (HEA, Aug, 2012, p. 9) but should ensure diversity while promoting meaningful clusters with real benefits.

Geographic proximity

Spatial proximity is seen as an important part of a cluster in the economics literature. Rosenfeld (1997, p.4) defines a cluster as a “geographically bounded concentration of interdependent businesses with active channels for business, transactions, dialogue and communications, and that actively shares common opportunities and threats”. The European Commission define a regional cluster as covering a local labour market area or a travel to work area (2002, p.13). It follows that the TU membership should reflect geographical clusters to harness the potential of economic regional clusters.

In terms of mergers in higher education, Skodvin (1999) argues that international experience shows that the most successful mergers have taken place between institutions which were physically close.   The international expert panel also considered geographical proximity to be important when they were assessing rationalisation and consolidation strategies of HEIs. The panel made recommendations that attempted to “keep widely dispersed multi-campus institutions to a minimum to achieve a more effective integration of staff and resources” and “sought to balance multi-campus structures with the need for campuses to be in as close proximity as is possible” (HEA Aug. 2012, p.9). Indeed, key policy documents have suggested that “the policy for higher education should aim to develop regional collaboration between clusters of geographically proximate institutions” (DES, 2011, p. 97) and that geographical coherence will improve the capacity of institutions to meet regional needs (HEA, April 2013). Finally, there may be additional costs when the “institutes are geographically fragmented as the new institution may require additional resources and expertise to – literally – keep the organisation together, ensuring coherence and the integration of staff and students” (Locke, 2007, p.89). The IoTs need to consider this in the context of their optimal partner institutions. This is particularly relevant to Ireland as Irish students tend to shop locally in accessing higher education, with the vast majority of students coming from within a 50 kilometer radius (AIRO 2012, quoted in Harkin and Hazelkorn, 2014, p.8). It is difficult to envisage many students travelling long distances to access programmes that no longer reside in their nearest HEI.


There are two priority objectives set for each cluster – better student pathways between the institutions, and coordinated academic planning to reduce duplication and improve quality of programmes. (HEA, June 2013). Incentivised funding is matched to the achievement of these objectives. While it is acknowledged that a TU may lead to meeting the goals of the cluster more expediently, it is not in of itself a requirement for funding. It is possible that higher education providers will become distracted with the implementation phase of a merger process and the achievement of TU status which could distract them from full participation in regional clusters (Harkin and Hazelkorn, 2014).


Botha (2001) suggests that a clearly defined merger plan and process is a critical factor for the success of mergers. However, the planning process has been undermined in the Irish context on two counts. First, the international panel report on higher education came 19 months after the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 and many of the recommendations were at odds with the national strategy leading to confusion. Second, the cluster geographical membership has been redrawn three times since April 2012 and this has made it very difficult for HEIs to engage in planning effective alliances when the ground has continuously shifted with respect to the likely partner institutes. While this policy context is far from ideal, the IoTs should now engage in appropriate policy appraisal and only then proceed to the planning stage with the best identified alternative.

People Issues

The literature tends to agree that people issues are central to the success of a merger (Skodvin, 1999 and Botha, 2001). Harman suggests that effective leadership and management from the top are seen as the most important factors in assuring the success of a merger (Harman, 2002). Locke (2007, p.83) proposes that “management styles and initiatives need to be mindful of the existing cultures and subcultures of the original colleges, otherwise there is a risk that the status and efficiency of the new HEI might be improved at the expense of its academic and scholarly development”. Goldman (2012) suggested that managers need to recognise that a merger is not merely dependent on their ability to manage the merger process, but also, and maybe more importantly, on their ability to lead staff mebers through difficult times of large scale change. Managers need to elevate people issues on a par with procedural issues during the merger process.


Ultimately, if the new TUs are to be successful, there must be buy in from academic staff and potential students. If staff do not believe the merger makes sense, they are unlikely to work because they fail to gain acceptance or ‘ownership’ (Locke, 2007, p.85). The new institutions also have to persuade prospective students to invest a considerable amount of their future income in studying at a new TU, “with a new name and brand identity yet to be established” (Locke, 2007, p.85). Managers need to ensure that the new entity resonates with these stakeholders. Harkin and Hazelkorn (2014, p.8-9) argue that the proposal to use regional clusters as a basis for the re-configuration of higher education is interesting given the Irish people’s undeveloped sense of identity with a region relative to their county, the centralised nature of government and the policy vacuum around the conceptualisation and infrastructure for regional economic development in Ireland.

Impact of Mergers on Teachers

This section considers the impact of mergers on teachers. The immediate impact on teachers in the newly merged IoTs will be three fold. First, the requirement to rationalise programmes. Second, the need for collaboration across once separate institutions. Third, the move from teaching orientated institutions to teaching and research orientated institutions.

Rationalisation of programmes

The merged IoTs will be, at the very least, expected to deliver programme rationalisation. This is based on the HEAs belief that there is duplication of programmes which is inefficient and that there is weak collaboration across institutions with an over focus of competition between institutions (HEA, December 2013a). Furthermore, the HEA is unequivocal with respect to the elimination of unnecessary duplication and insists that “progress on this issue is critical” (HEA, Feb, 2012, p. 9). To encourage the rationalisation process, the HEA intend to provide funding mechanisms such as increased weightings for joint programmes or shared modules across institutions, where this is the most cost effective mode of provision (HEA, Dec 2013b).

Much of the literature suggests that most institutional mergers and associated programme rationalisation can create anxiety among staff (Harman, 2002). For example, Goldman (2012) identifies that these anxieties, in a South African setting, reflected concerns over job security and autonomy.

This anxiety could act as a barrier to effective programme rationalisation when there is unnecessary duplication of programmes. Harman (2002) cites a successful example of an ‘integrated faculty model’ in order to address the problem of duplication and programme rationalisation. In the newly merged Charles Stuart University in Australia, “academics within the campuses were given the responsibility of rationalizing the inherent duplication themselves… the rationale was that these were the people who would have to live with the decisions made” (Harman, 2002, p.100). Funding for academic programmes was devolved to faculties from the centre. Locke (2007) also considers the division of decision-making powers between the ‘centre’ and the constituent colleges and argues that “too tight a central control could inhibit the flexibility and initiative of the academic communities and increase their sense of alienation from the centre” (Locke, 2007, p.85).


There are two key areas where teaching staff will have to collaborate across campuses in a new multi campus structure. First, staff will have to design curricula including learning and teaching methodologies and assessment strategies across once separate institutions. Second, staff will have to modify teaching practice to deliver joint programmes or shared modules across multi campuses.

The literature suggests that being involved in collaborative teaching and learning provides an opportunity to discuss and share ideas, break down barriers between institutions and engage in meaningful reflective learning (Willcoxson, Kavanagh and Cheung, 2011). Locke (2007) suggests that well managed mergers could unleash untapped creativity among staff leading to enhanced teaching portfolios and research opportunities.

However, collaboration across once disparate institutions requires the need to develop structures that support collaboration (Kezar, 2005) and this need is even more pronounced in higher educational institutions that tend to work in department silos and within bureaucratic/hierarchical administrative structures (Kezar, 2006). Willcoxson et al (2011) identified that an established plan of action, regular communication, role clarification, equity in terms of inclusion, tangible outcomes and ‘real’ support from institutional leaders as important considerations in supporting collaboration in teaching across institutes of higher education.

One collaborative supportive structure could be disciplinary based mentoring groups across campuses could help foster a connected culture and a collaborative approach to curricula design and teaching practice. Such mentoring groups could also lead to increased collaborative research outputs. Darwin and Palmer (2009) argue that organisational support for such mentoring circles is necessary, including senior staff participation, monetary support and career advancement opportunities for participation and outcomes.

Clearly, the use of technology enhanced learning has a role to play in developing and delivering joint programmes or shared modules across newly merged institutions. For example, teleconferencing was cited as a cost-effective means to maintain momentum in the collaboration process (Willcoxson et al, 2011) and to deliver teaching across campuses (Luck, 2003). In addition, social media could be harnessed to develop interaction between students in different campuses taking the same module. For example, discussion boards or ‘blogs’ have the capacity to engage people in collaborative activity, knowledge sharing, reflection and debate (Williams and Jacobs, 2004). Higgins, McGarry Wolf and Torres (2013) showcase the use of discussion boards where participation in a mutual online discussion across institutes was a graded portion of the course with points assigned for meaningful comments on the discussion board. Luck (2003) argues that training in the use of such technology is a necessary pre-requites to facilitate cross campus teaching.

Teaching and research: A balance

The HEA has outlined a number of criteria that must be met before an organisation can be granted TU status. In particular, at least 45% per cent of full time, higher education, academic staff, must hold a Level 10 qualification (doctorate) or the equivalence in professional experience, combined with a terminal degree appropriate to their profession. These staff will also have to demonstrate sustained activity in relevant areas of research and development once they qualify at doctorate level (HEA, 2012, p. 15-16).

This creates a challenge for IoTs which have been traditionally focused on teaching with staff employed on full time teaching contracts. IoTs seeking to become TUs not only have to upgrade staff qualifications to doctoral level but also develop a respectable research profile.

Martin (1994) and Harman (2002, p.104) suggest that there are models that can help to develop research capacity in traditional teaching institutions. For example, to help develop research capacity and to ensure quality, newly merged institutions typically provide support such as mentoring programmes, such as workshops that concentrate on learning ‘the tricks of the trade’ in writing grant applications to secure funds for projects and acquiring skills in writing for publication. Harman (2002, p.104) also suggests that “policies providing for reduction in teaching loads and release time for upgrading qualifications of staff, funds for seeding grants, sabbatical leave, conference support, individual support such as teaching fellows and research assistants, have all aided in building research capacity”. In any case, if TUs are to compete with traditional universities for research funding in Ireland and internationally, there will have to be parity of employment contracts with staff in both sectors with respect to time allocated to teaching and researching.

Concluding Remarks

The merging of higher education institutions in Ireland mirrors what is happening in many other countries in Europe, including, France and the United Kingdom. There are a number of implications arising from the Irish experience which may have relevance for other countries embarking on this path.

First, if the rationale for mergers is not clearly articulated and well understood, newly formed mergers are less likely to survive. The worry is that in a constrained financial environment, governments will encourage mergers that do not have a ‘raison d’etre’. Second, if central government does not articulate clearly the central planning framework for the merger process, HEIs will be compromised in their own planning process, which may damage the entire merger process. Third, if the policy appraisal process does not follow best practice including, inter alia, a cost benefit analysis, there is a possibility that actual costs will outweigh the benefits of a merger, again undermining the whole process.

Fourth, the objectives of facilitating widespread access to education and eliminating duplication of programmes are at odds with one another. As a result, HEIs which merge as a precursor to becoming universities, especially those that are not geographically close, will seek to maintain their broad base programme portfolio. This is likely to be supported by local politicians and local communities who identify closely with the HEI in their locality (Harkin and Hazelkorn, 2014). This calls into question the ‘economies of scale’ rationale for mergers.

Fifth, if mergers involve the carrot of a name change to ‘university’, there is a risk that the new merged entities will be universities in name only and fail to engage in robust research for cultural and staff teaching load reasons. The new ‘universities’ then risk falling down in the global rankings which will have knock on impacts for student recruitment and research funding. For example, in the UK, polytechnics changed their names to universities post 1992 but many did not change in substance (Scott, 2014). Indeed, there is steep vertical differentiation between polytechnics rebranded as universities and traditional universities, reflecting both reputational and research productivity factors (Aarrevarra et al, 2013, p.289). This may require managing a cultural change in teaching orientated institutions as well as restructuring contracts of employment for full time teaching staff. In addition, if some merged HEIs do manage to get university status and some do not, this may create a three tier higher education system, with traditional universities, new technological universities and finally IoTs. Indeed, this risk was identified in a footnote in the National Strategy for Education itself (DES, 2011, p. 103).

Sixth, if the status quo with respect to the current binary system is imposed, IoTs will have to forgo mergers with co-located traditional universities which may, after cost benefit analysis, prove to be more optimal for both HEIs while also harnessing the regional economic development potential of such clusters. Finally, if mergers do occur, there will be an impact on teachers with respect to programme rationalisation, collaboration and moving from teaching orientated institutions to teaching and research orientated institutions.

The merging of higher education institutions in Ireland is in its infancy with the first multi campus universities not due to arrive until 2018. The merger process needs to produce an optimal outcome that is better than heretofore, is fit for purpose for the coming decades and contributes to economic and social prosperity. It is hoped that this paper will facilitate a more open policy dialogue with government, academia, external specialists and stakeholders as Ireland embarks on its new higher education landscape.



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The author would like to thank Dr. Pauline Logue Collins and Dr. Carina Ginty for their constructive input.

This academic article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving three independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and two revision cycles. Accepting editor: Dr Leslie P. Hitch (Northeastern University, USA). Associate Senior Editor (IHR)

Suggested citation:

Finnegan, M. (2015). Merging Irish Higher Education Institutions: Rationale, Implementation and Impact. International HETL Review, Volume 5, Article III, https://www.hetl.org/merging-irish-higher-educational-institutions-rationale-implementation-and-impact

Copyright 2015 Marie Finnegan

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