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:

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.


Irish HEIs and Region Series Report: Athlone IoT and the Midlands Region

Introduction to the ‘Irish HEIs and Region Series Report’

As part of the Tionchar project, we have produced two reports on the economic impact of Irish higher education institutions (HEIs). The two reports used different research approaches: one with the Keynesian macro-level approach and the other with the input-output (IO) micro-level approach. For the purpose of dissemination, we focused on the economic impact of HEIs at the national level, with less attention paid to their impact at the regional level. Nevertheless, we recognise that it is essential to examine the role of HEIs in both regional and national economies. The ‘Irish HEIs and Region Series Report’ is intended to contribute to our understanding of the importance of HEIs to the region where they are situated. Each of the blogs will look at the case of an individual institution and the region where it is situated. As a whole, it is hoped that these reports could provide an overview of the Irish HEIs and their region.

Athlone IoT and the Midlands Region

Situate in the heart of Ireland, the Midlands region consists four counties, namely Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath, and according to the 2011 census has a population of 282,410. In Figure 1 below, we show the population growth in the four counties of the region and in the whole region as well as in the country between 2002 and 2011. It is apparent that all the counties in the Midlands Region saw their population growing faster than the national average.

Figure 1: Population by census year (2002=100)

image (19)

Source: CSO.

Despite the high growth rate of population over the last decade, the region has been struggling from an economic perspective. Figure 2 below illustrates the index of disposable income per person in the four counties between 2002 and 2012, while the state level is set at 100. Over the period, the gap between the Midlands region and the state has become wider, with the index of the region falling from 95 in 2002 to just below 90 in 2012.

Figure 2: Index of disposable income per person (State=100)

image (20)

Source: CSO.

As shown in Figure 3, the Midlands region lags behind the state in the share of employment in services. In the fourth quarter of 2014, less than 68% of employment in the Midlands Region was in services while that number was above 75% in Ireland. As suggested by many studies, the growth of the service sector could help make development more sustainable and more competitive in the knowledge-based economy. Therefore, the Midlands Region seems to face more difficulties than the rest of the country in building a modern economy.

Figure 3: Persons aged 15 years and over in employment (%)

image (21)

Source: CSO.

There is no city in the Midland region, and the largest town is Athlone in County Westmeath with a population of 20,153 according to the 2011 census (Figure 4). Portlaoise in County Laois and Mullingar in County Westmeath are the second and third largest towns in the region. With a population of 3,001, Clare in County Offaly is the tenth largest towns in the Midlands region.

Figure 4: Ten largest settlements in the Midlands region by population (2011)

image (22)

Source: CSO.

As the only third level institution in the region, Athlone Institute of Technology (IoT) is located in Athlone – the largest town in the Midlands. In 2010-11, a total of 4,439 undergraduates and 446 postgraduates were enrolled at the Athlone IoT, which employed a total of 509 staff. According to its financial data of 2009-10, the Athlone IoT received €47.4 million and spent €43.9 million.

In 2010-11, the Athlone IoT had the effect of generating a gross local output nationally of €81.30 million, with a concomitant generation of local disposable income nationally of €65.65 million (Table 1).

Using the Keynesian macro-level approach, our analysis also showed that, the Athlone IoT had the effect of generating a gross local output regionally of €64.75 million, with a concomitant generation of local disposable income regionally of €52.84 million.

Overall, the gross local output multiplier at the regional level on an output basis was estimated as 1.83. Every €1 of initial increase (decrease) in the expenditure base of the Athlone IoT would result in a rise (fall) of €1.83 in gross local output in the Midlands region.

For income, the local disposable income multiplier at the regional level on an output basis was estimated 1.76. Every €1 of initial increase (decrease) in the value of disposable income from the Athlone IoT would lead to a rise (fall) of €1.76 in local disposable income.

Table 1: Effects of the operation of Athlone on the Midlands region and Ireland (€000s)

Midlands region Ireland
Expenditure base 43,598 43,598
First round GLO (Y1) 35,365 42,405
First round LDI (D1) 30,096 35,545
Second round GLO (Y2) 24,239 30,495
Second round LDI (D2) 18,761 23,603
Final GLO (Yf) 64,751 81,299
Final LDI (Df) 52,841 65,648
GLO multiplier (Yf/Y1) 1.83 1.92
LDI multiplier (Df/D1) 1.76 1.85
Expenditure base multiplier (GLO) (Yf/E) 1.49 1.86
Expenditure base multiplier (LDI) (Df/E) 1.21 1.51

Source: Zhang et al. (2015).

The Question of a University for the South-East

The Question of a University for the South-East

Beside the fantastic St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin on Tuesday, I also enjoyed reading the book by John Walshe over the past long weekend.

The book, titled ‘An Education: How an outsider became an insider – and learned what really goes on in Irish government’, is about what Walshe has encountered and learned during his time – more than three years – in the government as a special adviser to education minister Ruairi Quinn until he announced his decision to resign as minister on 2 July 2014.

I know very little, if not nothing, about politics in general, neither am I interested in too much. Walshe’s book is of big interest to me in particular because he has great insights into the higher education sector in Ireland, although he has also talked much about primary and secondary education.

In one chapter, Walshe talked about the proposed merge of Waterford Institute of Technology and Carlow Institute of Technology into a Technological University (TU), a status many think would benefit the city and its region. The following written by Walshe was not aware to me until I read it:

‘Back in the 1840s, at the time of the formation of the Queen’s University of Ireland, local politicians had made strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to locate a university in their city [Waterford]. Instead, the three constituent colleges were set up in Belfast, Cork and Galway (the forerunners of QUB, UCC and NUIG).’

After a historical note, Walshe continued with the contemporary arguments on the issue:

‘In recent times, the focus had been on upgrading Waterford’s Institute of Technology (WIT). The city feels that inward investment is stymied by its lack of a university. The constant brain drain of very bright students to universities elsewhere affects the region in many ways, and local businesspeople believe that it is difficult to persuade industry to invest in a region without a university.’

This blog intends to draw some comparisons between the socio-economic conditions of three counties: Cork, Galway and Waterford.

Although it is of interest to see if these three counties (and cities) show different characteristics such as population, labour force, and inward investment, the comparisons by no means suggest the causality between the existence of a university and the different, if any, characteristics.


There is a large body of research arguing that cities or city regions of scale are the focal points for investment, innovation, and growth. Figure 1 below shows the population changes in the three counties between 1841 and 2011, based on the CSO data.

Figure 1

Population in counties of Cork, Galway and Waterford, 1841-2011

Source: CSO.

In all of the three counties, the population sharply decreased in the first few decades after 1841. During the Great Famine, a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852, approximately 1 million people died and 1 million more emigrated from the country. In the first half of the 20th century, Ireland experiences a series of wars, including World War I, Irish Civil War and World War II, all costing many lives of soldiers and civilians. As Figure 1 shows, the population in the three counties did not start increasing again until the 1960s. From a longitudinal perspective, Waterford has always been a smaller county than Cork and Galway in terms of population.

Figure 2

Population in counties of Cork, Galway and Waterford, 1961-2011

Source: CSO.

Figure 2 compares the three counties in terms of population growth during 1961 and 2011, with the population in 1961 set as 100. The population growth in Galway was slower than in the other two counties in the 1970s and 1980s, but it outpaced Cork in the mid-1990s and Waterford in the early 2000s. Waterford has shown a faster growth of population than Cork during the whole period, but one should bear in mind that Waterford is much smaller in population size.

Disposable income

Figure 3 shows the disposable income levels of the three counties between 2000 and 2011, all in relative to the state average of 100. In 2000, Waterford actually led its two counterparts in terms of disposable income per person, but it dropped to the bottom in 2009 and 2010. The performance of Cork has been most impressive among the three, as its disposable income level increased above the national level in 2010, while the other two counties were still well below. It would be interesting to see how they recover from the economic crisis in the more recent years.

Figure 3

Index of disposable income per person, 2000-2011

Source: CSO.

Industry structure

Figure 4 below compares the industry structures of the three counties, measured by the percentages of employment in key industries in 2011. The industries are aggregated into primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors in Figure 5. In general, the industry structures of the three counties are quite similar to each other, although Waterford has a slightly larger secondary sector and a slightly smaller tertiary sector. It is difficult to speculate what effects this difference would have on the overall economic performance.

Figure 4

Population 15 years and over at work by industry

Source: CSO.

Figure 5

Population 15 years and over at work by sector

Source: CSO.

Inward Investment

County-by-county data of inward investment is not easily accessible. Nevertheless, there is a wide recognition of the spatial concentration of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Dublin and Cork. The Horizon 2020 strategy, published by the IDA, sets a regional economic development target of 50 per cent of investments between 2010 and 2014 in regions outside the above two regions. In 2012, the result was 25 per cent and increased to 30 per cent in 2013, still far behind the target. Possibly, both Galway and Waterford lag behind Cork in terms of receiving FDI. As argued by the IDA, there are many complex factors influencing investor location decision making such as increasing preference of investors globally for cities of scale with 1 million plus population.


Without suggesting any causality relationships between the establishment of a university and economic development of the region where that university is situated, this blog has compared some key economic indicators of Cork, Galway and Waterford. In general, the three counties are comparable in most aspects. Although it is true that Waterford is missing out on inward investment, so do Galway and most counties outside Dublin and Cork. The question of a university for the south-east is a complicated one and might be asked by people due to various reasons. Nevertheless, little strong evidence has been found to support the argument that Waterford lags behind, economically, just because of the absence of a university.

Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide? A 10-year analysis of disposable income in Ireland’s counties

Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide?

A 10-year analysis of disposable income in Ireland’s counties

The recovery of Ireland’s economy from the 2008 crisis has been labelled by many people as a ‘two-tier’ one, with Dublin leading the way while the rest struggling.

In 2014, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) released figures of disposable income in Ireland’s counties in 2011. There have in consequence seen reports analysing the data and suggesting Dublin was the only county with disposable income increasing following the economic crash.

Indeed, Dubliners saw their spending power rise from an average of €20,697 in 2010 to €21,329 in 2011, while the rest continued to see their average disposable income per person falling during the same period.

This blogpost aims to provide a longer perspective on the issue of county-level disposable income in Ireland, examining the relevant data between 2002 and 2011.

Table 1: Index of disposable income per person by county (or city) and census year (Ireland=100)

County 2002 2008 2011 Δ 2008-2011 Δ 2002-2011
Carlow 84.7 93.3 96.7 3.4 12.0
Donegal 75.7 79.7 83.4 3.7 7.7
Leitrim 86.0 92.6 92.4 -0.2 6.4
South Tipperary 92.6 97.1 98.8 1.7 6.2
Sligo 89.5 93.5 95.6 2.1 6.1
Galway (City and county) 90.2 96.8 96.2 -0.6 6.0
Kerry 83.4 86.1 89.3 3.2 5.9
Mayo 86.9 89.1 92.4 3.3 5.5
Limerick (City and county) 95.7 97.2 101 3.8 5.3
Cork (City and county) 97.0 98.7 102.2 3.5 5.2
Wexford 88.8 96.4 92.0 -4.4 3.2
North Tipperary 92.2 95.1 95.1 0.0 2.9
Laois 90.6 92.6 92.9 0.3 2.3
Kilkenny 88.0 94.7 89.2 -5.5 1.2
Cavan 86.8 90.8 87.9 -2.9 1.1
Ireland 100.0 100.0 100.0 0.0 0.0
Westmeath 94.6 90.8 93.7 2.9 -0.9
Offaly 89.0 87.4 88.1 0.7 -0.9
Monaghan 86.3 88.1 85.3 -2.8 -1.0
Longford 91.6 90.1 90.0 -0.1 -1.6
Waterford (City and county) 98.7 97.6 96.6 -1.0 -2.1
Clare 94.0 94.8 91.6 -3.2 -2.4
Meath 100.3 101.8 97.4 -4.4 -2.9
Roscommon 90.2 90.6 86.0 -4.6 -4.2
Louth 99.4 98.9 95.0 -3.9 -4.4
Dublin (City and county) 116.7 112.1 111.9 -0.2 -4.8
Kildare 109.5 106.9 103.8 -3.1 -5.7
Wicklow 105.2 99.0 98.4 -0.6 -6.8

Source: CSO.

Table 1 shows the disposable income levels of Ireland’s counties in 2002, 2008 and 2011, all in relative to the state average of 100. In particular, the counties are ranked by the last column – the change between 2002 and 2011 – to indicate what places have been climbing up and what places have been falling down.

Carlow and Donegal are the two most impressive areas, where the disposable income levels have increased by more than 7 percentage points, followed by Leitrim, South Tipperary and Sligo.

By contrast, counties of Kildare and Wicklow have seen their positions significantly weakening with a decline of more than 5 percentage points in the index. County Wicklow, of which the disposable income level index was 105.2 in 2002, fell behind the national average in 2011.

Dublin, when the city and county combined, also witnesses a sharp drop (4.8 percentage points) in the index of disposable income.

The next to the last column further shows how the counties performed after the economic crisis took place in 2008. Donegal once again is among the areas showing the largest positive improvements, following closely just behind Limerick. Kilkenny and Roscommon, instead, have been hit hard by the crisis.

During the period 2008-2011, Dublin (city and county) saw a modest decrease of its index from 112.1 to 111.9, suggesting a continuing narrowing gap between itself and the national average.

Although it might be right that Dublin was the only county that saw its disposable income per person increasing in 2011, one should not ignore the fact that the advantage of Dublin has been diminishing in the longer perspective. More importantly, counties like Limerick, Donegal, Carlow, Mayo, Kerry and Cork, have been catching up, even during the recent difficult years.


For the purpose of Eurostat and EU Structural Funds, two NUTS 2 regions of Ireland were established and came into effect in July 1999. One is the Southern and Eastern region, and the other one is Border, Midland and Western region. Both regions had “Objective 1” status in the early years, meaning they were both qualified to receive the Structural Funds, which are one of the financial instruments of European Union regional policy intended to narrow the development disparities among regions and Member States. The “Objective 1” status of the Southern and Eastern region ended in 2005, one year earlier than the Border, Midland and Western region.

These two regions may be similar in terms of size, but the Southern and Eastern region shows a much higher level of population density as well as economic activity measured as GDP (PPP) per capita. Figure 1 below analyses how the GDP per capita of the two regions compares against that of Ireland between 1996 and 2010.

Figure 1 GDP per capita as % that of Ireland by region, 1996-2010, Ireland=100


Source: OECD (2014), Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Note: Per capita, US $ constant PPP, constant (real) prices (year 2005).

Clearly, Ireland has an unbalanced economy, which could be termed as a “North South Divide”, similar to what has also been found in the UK. In both countries, the southern regions show more advanced economic development than the northern regions. In 1996, GDP per capita of the Border, Midland and Western region in Ireland was just under three quarters of that of Ireland. More importantly, the gap between this region and the rest of the country was further widened across the years. Up to 2010, its GDP per capita was less than two thirds of the national average.

It may not come as a big surprise that the Southern and Eastern region is more developed in the Irish context. Indeed, it is this part of the country that houses the majority of firms, in particular those high-tech multinational companies. In 2012, OECD published its Cluster Scoreboard which compared the entrepreneurship of 80 local enterprise clusters in two key innovative sectors with important roles in local economic growth: high-technology manufacturing and knowledge-intensive service activities. Three of the four clusters from Ireland being selected in the report were from the Southern and Eastern region, including: Bio-pharma cluster in Dublin; Med-Tech cluster in Cork; and ICT cluster in Dublin. The Atlantic Technology Corridor from Galway to Shannon was the only one located within the Border, Midland and Western Region.

What is a bit surprising is the fact that the overall economic development level of the Border, Midland and Western region has lagged further behind the national average during the recent decade. Since the publication of the National Development Plan 2000-2006, the Irish Government has started addressing the regional disparities, with more and more resources being dedicated to supporting infrastructure development and business development in the weaker areas.

In Figures 2 to 5 we illustrate the R&D landscape in Ireland between 2002 and 2009. As Figure 2 demonstrate, the total R&D expenditure performed within the Border, Midland and Western region accounted for under 20 per cent of the total R&D expenditure in Ireland in 2009, showing a significant increase from less than 14 per cent in 2002.

Figure 2 Total R&D expenditure as % that of Ireland by region, 2002-2009


Source: OECD (2014), Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Note: Million US $ constant PPP, constant (real) prices (year 2005).

Figure 3 R&D expenditure performed by the business sector as % that of Ireland by region, 2002-2009


Source: OECD (2014), Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Note: Million US $ constant PPP, constant (real) prices (year 2005).

Figure 4 R&D expenditure performed by the government sector as % that of Ireland by region, 2002-2009


Source: OECD (2014), Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Note: Million US $ constant PPP, constant (real) prices (year 2005).

Figure 5 R&D expenditure performed by the higher education sector as % that of Ireland by region, 2002-2009


Source: OECD (2014), Main Science and Technology Indicators.

Note: Million US $ constant PPP, constant (real) prices (year 2005).

Figures 3, 4 and 5 show more or less similar trends to what is revealed in Figure 2. Therefore, although the Border, Midland and Western region has made gradual progress in terms of performing R&D activities, those efforts have not turned into economic benefits or final outputs. Understandably, it takes time for a region to adjust its industrial structures, and maybe needs more patience to build a functional system of innovation, in which institutions actively engage with each other in knowledge exchange and collaboration.

At the first glance, Figure 1 and Figures 2 to 5 may have shown something contradictory, but one needs to bear in mind that, although it is generally claimed that R&D expenditure is associated with economic development, that impact has to be examined within a longer period, depending on the specific context of regions. Ireland, as small as it may be, still has localities which present heterogeneous features of economic development, industrial structures, and organisational relationships.