Arguing with Regions: The Concept of Region and its Relevance to the Studies on Irish HEIs

An economic geographer by training, I have an interest in the spatial level in many research topics. The NESTA project I worked on when I first started my study in the UK was on the Triple Helix innovation system in the weaker region (Wales). My PhD dissertation was about the patterns of university-business interactions across UK regions, which has for a long time been geographically fractures with areas of prosperity and areas of deprivation.

In the Tionchar project, we have also analysed the issues about Irish HEIs through a regional perspective. As part of the first stage, we have examined both regional and national economic impacts of the 21 HEIs, including 7 universities and 14 IoTs. In the second stage, we have conducted a survey asking university and IoT staff to identify their engagements with external stakeholders, e.g. private sector companies and public sector organisations. Particularly, we were keen to know the spatial structure of knowledge networks – local, regional, national, and international – engaged by staff employed by Irish HEIs.

The analysis undertaken in our project has recognised a total of eight NUTS 3 regions in Ireland following the EU definition which will be further discussed below. While the project chooses the (administrative) region as the unit of analysis, it is vital to acknowledge that the region as a concept and in practice is not without problems, which have been consistently debated by scholars and practitioners.

Conceptually, as Keating (1998) summarised that, region is an elusive concept and covers a variety of territorial levels and a range of social contents. In his viewpoint, a minimal definition of region would present it as an intermediate territorial level between the state and the locality, whereas the boundary is vague and difficult to draw. There has been a move from defining regions on the basis of administrative criteria to defining regions on the basis of functional criteria (Ball 1980; Casado-Díaz 2000; Schmitt-Egner 2002).

In reality, however, the identification of region is closely related to the way statistics are produced. Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, for instance, introduced the NUTS (Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics) classification as a single, coherent system to produce regional statistics. To account for the role of urban areas in sustaining a critical mass for development, the European Union also defined a harmonised series of metropolitan areas (Dijkstra 2009). Metropolitan regions, as defined, are “NUTS 3 regions or a combination of NUTS 3 regions which represent all agglomerations of at least 250,000 inhabitants”.

In the UK, there are 12 NUTS1 regions and 46 metropolitan regions according to the two definitions of region by the European Union, with each NUTS1 region covering a number of metropolitan regions, an indication that the 12 regions could, to a large extent, represent the geographic concentration of economic activity in the UK. After all, the conceptual move from administrative regions towards functional regions seems to have limited practical impact on the analysis of UK regions, though it does provide a more detailed picture.

Compared to the UK, Ireland is much smaller in terms of population and country size. There are only three metropolitan regions by the EU standard in Ireland, each corresponding to a NUTS 3 region. These include Dublin (Dublin Region), Dublin (Mid-East Region), and Cork (South-West Region). Following this definition, all the rest of the country is recognised as non-urban areas.

In the Tionchar project, the eight regions we have recognised refer to the NUTS 3 regions, namely Border Region, West Region, Midlands Region, Mid-East Region, Dublin Region, South-East Region, South-West Region, and Mid-West Region. Established by the 1991 Local Government Act, the eight Regional Authorities came into existence in 1994 with the following two main functions: to promote the coordination of public service provision and to monitor the delivery of EU Structural Fund assistance in the regions.

Until the end of 2014, these eight NUTS 3 regions were placed under two NUTS 2 regions: Border, Midland and Western Region and Southern and Eastern Region. Since January 2015, the existing eight Regional Authorities and two Regional Assemblies were replaced by three new Regional Assemblies: the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, the Southern Regional Assembly, and the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly. The main critique on the existing system is that “in its current form, our system of regional government and governance is ill-equipped to make a meaningful contribution to self-sustaining, bottom-up, regional development” (See: https://irelandafternama.wordpress.com/).

In their paper titled “Gateways, hubs and regional specialisation in the National Spatial Strategy”, van Egeraat et al. (2013) used in their analysis what are termed the ‘regional fields’ (RFs) rather than the conventional NUTS 3 regions. The authors followed to explain that:

These were defined on the basis of commuting data from the 2006 Census of Population and were derived from a separate research project at the Department of Geography and National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth. These RFs are considered to be more relevant, in functional terms, than the regional authority areas (RAAs), consisting of groups of counties, used by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for the purpose of presenting regional data. The RFs have a degree of concordance with the RAAs, with the main exception that Tralee is the focus of a separate RF and that the border region is divided into three RFs centred on Letterkenny, Sligo and Dundalk.

The identification of regions in the Irish context is not much different to what is happening in the EU in that it starts with defining regions as administrative areas and move to defining regions as functional areas. What are the implications of this change in the studies on HEIs? First, there is little influence on the national impact of HEIs. Second, the analysis of the regional role of HEIs might change (as the boundaries of regions are changed) but one may wonder the activities undertaken by HEIs probably remain the same. Third, while the introduction of a new regional system might be simple, but the implementation of it might require much more effort, especially the consistency of statistics. Last but not least, the governance of regions and localities needs a long-term strategy from both top-down and bottom-up directions.