Budget 2013 – University Collaboration – A Modest Proposal

Key Point

Suggestions to merge Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD) have been rejected. But they should emulate the US precedent and provide the facility for students, both undergraduate and graduate, to take courses for credit in each other’s programmes. This should be done across the board, with a minimum of bureaucracy and no fees transfer; the only requirements would be that students meet the necessary pre-requisites to take the course(s) in question, and that there is classroom or other relevant capacity in the receiving institution. It would help make the programmes of both universities more internationally competitive, and will encourage specialisation and scale in research; the whole will be more than the sum of the parts. The TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance and a few Higher Education Authority (HEA) bottom-up collaborative initiatives show promise, but to achieve serious economies of scale and scope, access should be universal. What is good enough for Harvard and MIT should be good enough for UCD and TCD


Budget policy is in part about getting more and better outcomes from the same or a shrinking level of resources. Are there opportunities to do this in Ireland with our universities? A recent report has recommended that one way of doing so in the Republic of Ireland would be to merge the two largest and internationally highest ranked universities, namely the University of Dublin (Trinity College) and University College Dublin. This proposal did not find favour with any of the key decision-makers, including the Minister for Education. But there is another opportunity – allow all undergraduate and post graduate students access to the courses that each university offers, regardless of their home institution.

The Teaching Dividend

In the seventies, I co-directed a new 2 year course work Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University, North Carolina. It was competing with other programmes, notably a similar offering at Yale University. Fees were very high, and it was important to be able to offer an outstanding programme. There was an arrangement between the three major universities in the area – Duke, the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill (known as ‘Communist Hill’ by some locals because of its liberal traditions) and North Carolina State University in Raleigh – that their courses at both undergraduate and post graduate levels would be accessible to all. In our case, it allowed us to include environmental law, offered by UNC, and environmental design, offered by NC State, which were very popular with students, and a source of competitive advantage in their careers and in our programme. Duke has a law school, but at that time it did not offer a course in environmental law suitable for non-law students. In time, there was a backward flow, as students came to Duke to take courses in environmental economics and applied ecology.

Irish universities are looking to develop their taught master’s offerings as a source of revenue. It will improve their attraction to both local but especially international students if they can widen their coursework menu. The only way to do this as resources and staff numbers shrink is to draw on what adjacent universities have to offer.

The influx of students from the neighbouring institutions had a subtle but real effect on performance. It was flattering that they were taking the time and trouble to come and take your course, and you did not want them going back to their home institution saying ‘That course by Convery was a real waste of time and effort – avoid it.’ You upped your game to ensure that reports on your content and performance were good. And the wider the pool of teaching available, the greater the chance of competition, and productive and transferrable innovation. See ‘Notes’ for some interesting innovations.

There is an incentive for students to seek out enjoyable career-enhancing courses in other universities and bring them to the attention of their supervisors ‘at home’. They find new and (to the academics) unexpected gems that add to their intellectual development.
This principle of mutual access is widespread in the US, and includes Harvard, MIT and other colleges in the Boston area, and the University of California Berkeley Stanford University and others in Northern California.

There is local precedent. For a few collaborative programmes in Ireland, most of which have been supported by the Higher Education Authority – for example the PhDs in Simulation Science and Earth and Natural Sciences – we are already doing this. But each case has to be built from the bottom up – the ability to automatically and quickly take advantage of a particular offering is lost. And the gap applies with particular force in regard to course work masters degrees.

How to make it work

It has to be a top down decision. The university managements agree on the principle and how it will work. The operating assumption is that everyone opts in.

The transaction costs are minimised. The only administration is registration for the course, and transfer of the grade back to the home institution, both of which can be done electronically. No fees are transferred. The only rules governing access are that the ‘sending’ supervisor/department/school agrees that the courses in question are appropriate, the students meet whatever pre-requisites are needed in order to succeed in the course, and there is capacity in the class room or lab. This will limit the collaborative potential in the case of lab based courses.

Research Dividend

To create an internationally competitive research cluster in your department or school, you need to be able to hire more than one person in the same specialist area. For many of us, research is a conversation, in which we invent questions and jointly examine our intuitive answers. But for this to work, we need someone nearby to talk to. An important inhibitor of research performance in the Irish system is the need to ‘cover’ all of the teaching needs. This means that whenever a new appointment is to be made, the first call is to ensure that the candidate fills any teaching gaps. But this makes it difficult to impossible to build up a team of expertise in a specialist research area. If it were possible to say: ‘the minimum teaching requirement in this area can be met at a sister institution’, this very limiting constraint on hiring can be relaxed. Over time, universities would tend, more or less automatically, to specialise in what they are best at, and draw on their neighbours for the rest.

Final Thoughts

There will of course be opposition, especially from the insecure. Daniel Kahneman observed that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers. But most will enjoy the challenge and embrace the opportunity. What’s good enough for Harvard and MIT should be good enough for UCD and TCD.
The US experience implies that the amount of movement from one campus to another is modest – perhaps on the order of 2-5 per cent, so there is little likelihood of mass take up. (Of course, if this were to happen, it would tell its own, very useful story). But students like having the choice, even if they never exercise it – what economists call ‘option value.’ And it can be very important in terms of enhanced intellectual experience and professional development for the small number who do take up courses at another university; they are likely to be the leaders of tomorrow.


Examples of Existing Collaboration

The TCD-UCD Innovation Academy is a collaboration to “transform our brightest scholars into vibrant entrepreneurs.” It involves 200 PhD students.

And a number of PhD programmes. Examples include:

  • Economics and Political Science
  • Simulation Science
  • The Earth and Natural Sciences (also includes University of Limerick, National University of Ireland Galway, and Queens University Belfast).

Teaching Innovation

Five TED presentations worth seeing (first brought to my attention in Financial Times ‘Life and Arts’ February 25, 26, 2012, p. 2) – see here.

  1. Kevin Slavin Algoworld (2011) – writing code we can’t understand, with implications we can’t control
  2. Jane McGonigal Game on (2010) – harness gaming power to solve real world problem
  3. Misha Glenny Hire the Hackers (2011). Hacking is more ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’ – recruit their talents.
  4. Salman Khan (2011) Flip Teaching
  5. Chimamanda Adichie -the single story (2009). The single story creates stereotypes – one story becomes the only story.

Also click here for more information.

Kahneman observation
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Books, London, 2012, p. 214

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Frank Convery

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