The Towards a Higher Education Landscape document sets out the rationale for the development of regional clusters of higher education institutions.
The future landscape of Irish higher education will require a coherent framework comprised of a variety of institutions of different kinds, with distinct well-defined roles, responsibilities and inter-relationships. The building of regional collaborative clusters of such distinct institutions is key to the delivery of many of the most important objectives of the National Strategy and to the delivery of the overarching objective of achieving a more coherent, higher quality and more efficient higher education system. Clusters will allow programmes of teaching and learning to be better planned and co-ordinated, resources to be used more efficiently, more flexible student pathways and better progression opportunities to be put in place, and better and more coordinated services to enterprise and society to be provided at a regional level.
The impetus for the creation of regional clusters has stemmed from developments internationally. Over the last decades, there has been significant interest internationally in developing cities or regions of knowledge which can maximise and leverage the expertise and resources of higher education and myriad societal actors. The international literature and related public policy interventions has focused on the way in which groups of related/complementary business organisations and a common supporting infrastructure of “hard” institutions (e.g. HEIs, local authorities) and “soft” institutions (e.g. networks, intermediary bodies, skilled workforce etc.). Different concepts describe these developments, leading to adoption of the “quadruple helix” (higher education, business, government and civil society) framework.
The 2013 Report to the Minister outlined in more detail the expectations of regional clusters. Acknowledging collaboration to date, it set out a vision for clusters as being “dynamic and innovative ‘regions of knowledge’ capable of increasing regional capacity, capability and global competitiveness in order to contribute significantly to social, cultural and economic development.” It also envisaged that clusters would engage actively with industry, community organisations and regional authorities to provide education and research programmes and to engage in knowledge exchange.
Following the HEA report, the Minister for Education and Skills asked that each cluster focus, in the first instance, on progressing work on two priority objectives: shared, coordinated academic planning; and a regionally coordinated approach to transfer and progression pathways. Three further/follow-on objectives were also agreed for clusters: coordinated approach to enterprise, the community and to regional development; shared services and facilities, including harmonisation of systems and processes; and shared and coordinated approach to the promotion of the region internationally.
The cluster configurations as envisaged are:
- Dublin I (UCD, TCD, NCAD and Dun Laoghaire IADT);
- Dublin II cluster (consisting of the MEND cluster – DCU including its incorporated teacher education colleges, MU, Athlone IT, Dundalk IT; and TU4Dublin):
- South (UCC, Cork IT, IT Tralee, Waterford IT and IT Carlow);
- Mid-West (UL, Mary Immaculate College and Limerick IT);
- West (NUI Galway, St. Angela’s College, Galway-Mayo IT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT);
Guidelines on the development of regional clusters were set out in the Landscape document.
The second System Performance Report noted that:
“The HEA has continued to emphasise the importance of cluster development, and recognising the need for engagement on the issue, in 2015 it consulted with institutions on ways forward. Regional collaboration to drive wider goals is also a key feature of other elements of government:
- In education, in the form of regional skills fora
- In health, in hospital groups
- In enterprise, in the regional action plans for jobs
- In the environment, in collaboration between local authorities.
“Nationally, initiatives such as the Office for Government Procurement has a role to play in the development of forms of collaboration.
“Collaboration is also a key feature of developments at a European level, where the European Commission is focusing on smart specialisation as a means to ensure maximum benefits from investments in science, research and higher education and to support regional development. The HEA will engage with the Department for Education and Skills to continue the development of the cluster agenda, with a view to enhancing and enabling better outcomes from higher education.”