Slide in university rankings an imperfect but ominous indicator of decline

The mounting cost of the third-level funding crisis

 

University rankings are flawed instruments for measuring the performance of colleges. They are compiled by commercial organisations, do not measure the quality of tuition and are heavily skewed towards the richest universities. Despite this, they are hugely important. They play a crucial role in attracting research funding and international students. They also heavily influence Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment. In short, for all their deficiencies, they cannot be ignored.

That is why the continued slide in the performance of some of Ireland’s top universities is a cause of mounting concern. The latest set of rankings released on Wednesday – this time compiled by Times Higher Education – show that no Irish university has made the top-200.

Many of the measures used to compile rankings – such as rising student-staff ratios – are linked to the continued underfunding of our universities. In the aftermath of the economic collapse, State funding has dropped almost 40 per cent, from €1.4 billion in 2007-08 to about €860 million this year. In the meantime, the number of student has risen significantly while staff numbers have declined.

Universities have rightly been forced to reform and work more efficiently. But there is growing evidence that they are reaching a tipping point where the quality of tuition is at risk through overcrowded facilities, outdated equipment and reduced access to tutorials. Those most severely affected are institutes of technology which are more limited in their ability to borrow and have less capacity to generate private income.

This problem is not going to go away. The numbers projected to progress on to higher education are set to grow by at least 20 per cent over the next decade due to high birth rates; the impact of Brexit may lead to further increases, with fewer numbers opting to study abroad and more EU students seeking to study in an English-speaking member state.

The Cassells report on the future funding of higher education, published earlier this year, warned in stark terms that the current system is not fit for purpose. It laid out a number of options, such as a significant hike in State funding or a student loan scheme. There is little sign of any decision on these suggestions.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has passed the hot potato to an Oireachtas committee for debate. Fianna Fáil, for its part, seems reluctant to commit to any particular model. No party, it seems, is willing to grasp the nettle.

A long-term funding model is urgently needed. If Ireland as a society, a State and an economy aspires to quality third-level education, the political establishment needs to grasp the nettle of how to fund it. As the rankings demonstrate, doing nothing is no longer an option.

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