Can our top universities' reputation survive another fall in global rankings?
Almost a decade of spending cuts and falling staff numbers seem to be taking their toll
’Ireland top universities have been sliding down global rankings due largely to issues linked to long-term underfunding, worsening staff to student ratios and greatly diminished capacity for research.’ File photograph: Chris Ison/PA Wire
In much the same way as credit rating agencies downgraded the Irish economy in recent years, it’s easy to take issue with the private firms who compile university rankings.
They may well be biased towards richer colleges and compromised by the way they sell their expertise to universities desperate to improve their overall position.
But there comes a point when picking holes in individual ranking organisations misses a much bigger point about a broader decline in the reputation and status of Ireland’s best universities.
The trend is now firmly established – but can it be reversed?
Ireland's top universities have been sliding down the rankings due largely to issues linked to long-term underfunding, worsening staff to student ratios and greatly diminished capacity for research.
Eight years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff are taking their toll across the wider higher education sector.
State funding has dropped almost 40 per cent, from €1.4 billion in 2007-08 to about €860 million this year.
Hikes in the student registration charge – which has ballooned to about €3,000 a year – have failed to plug the gap.
This up-front contribution is so big that many students and families, especially those who fall just outside the grant thresholds, are struggling to meet the costs.
The biggest universities – Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork – now get most of their funding from non-State sources, such as fees from international students, research and other sources.
For the country’s 14 institutes of technology, the situation is bleaker. They have less access to private income and are prohibited from borrowing. At least five third-level institutions – including four institutes of technology – are in financially vulnerable positions as they struggle to cope with cuts in State funding and rising student numbers.
Rankings may not occupy the minds of most students or lecturers. But they are crucial in attracting research funding, international students and foreign direct investment.
“If Ireland wants to continue to build on its status as a high-value, research and development economy, these rankings really matter,” says Ferdinand von Prondzynski, former president of DCU and now principal of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. “It needs to look much more closely at what’s happening to the universities.”
The underlying issues around underfunding are also coming home to roost in the form of larger class sizes, reduced access to laboratories and libraries, and sharp cuts to tutorials.
If there is a surprise, it is how well most colleges are coping with this new reality. Many are punching above their weight partly by taking more innovative approaches to collaboration, research and tuition.
But the long-term capacity of universities to perform at such a high level will not be sustainable unless the funding model for higher education is fixed.
Pressure on the system is set to grow. High birth rates mean the number of students entering higher education will grow by more than 20 per cent over the next decade or so.
An expert group on the future funding of higher education was established two years ago to draw up a series of reform options. Its report, published earlier this year, put it bluntly.
“The funding system is simply not fit for purpose,” the group’s chairman, Peter Cassells, wrote. “It fails to recognise the scale of the coming demographic changes. These pressures are now seriously threatening quality.”
It called for urgent action – but so far the approach of the Government has been to kick the issue into a Dáil committee.
Despite inaction, Irish universities have been faring reasonably well all things considered.
But for how much longer?