The need to address "significant tension" between quality and high participation levels is at the heart of new policy for Irish higher education, as officials prepare to assess "the numbers, types and locations" of institutions required over the coming decades.
Plans to create a new regime for higher education in the Republic of Ireland, based on the principle of "directed diversity", took a major step forward this week with the release of three policy documents by the Higher Education Authority, the Irish equivalent of the funding councils in England, Scotland and Wales.
The key document, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, puts flesh on the bones of last year's National Strategy for Higher Education. While stressing a continuing commitment to quality and high levels of participation, it notes that "there is a significant tension between these two objectives which needs to be managed in a sustainable way".
The report also points out that "the national policy of broadly distributing provision to facilitate regional access took precedence over the creation of focused centres of excellence, as evidenced in the wide distribution of programmes such as nursing, apprenticeship and teacher training".
This had led to "a crowded and somewhat unstructured landscape". Proliferation of undergraduate programmes had also meant "fragmentation of offerings and a loss of focus on core missions and strengths".
The HEA is now determined to combine "distinctiveness of missions at the institutional level and diversity of missions at system level".
While competition between institutions was inevitable, "care needs to be taken that competition does not create unnecessary and wasteful duplication", the report says.
The HEA will play a directive role by asking each institution, within the next six months, to clarify "where and how it proposes to position itself within the Irish higher education system...Such proposals should provide high-level strategic plans with regard to mission, institutional alliances and clusters."
These would then be discussed in the autumn with a view to the HEA submitting to the minister for education and skills, currently Ruairi Quinn, "an outline blueprint for the higher education system, including numbers, types and locations of higher-education institutions that will be required in the system over the next 10 to 20 years". It is intended that the blueprint be published by the end of the year.
In the other two papers, the HEA announces that "all higher education institutions will actively participate in regional clusters", which could potentially involve mergers.
A final paper lists the criteria for the creation of a new "technological university". This would require "the consolidation of two or more institutions" to "create a new type of university" with "a systematic focus on the preparation of graduates for complex professional roles in a changing technological world".