The proportion of students to staff in Irish universities is “much, much worse” than it was during the recession-hit 1980s and represents the single biggest threat to higher education, University College Dublin (UCD) president Prof Orla Feely has warned.
Prof Feely, who was appointed president of the country’s largest university last May, made the comments during her inaugural lecture at UCD on Monday evening in front of more than 600 staff.
“The student-to-faculty ratio in UCD when I was a student in the 1980s, that time of economic deprivation for the country, was around 13 to one. Now, in a vastly wealthier Ireland, it is over 20 to one – much, much worse than in my student days,” she said.
“In the OECD Education at a Glance document just published, Ireland is second from the bottom for student-faculty ratio in tertiary education... As a country whose main natural resource is talent and whose success has depended so fundamentally on the talent developed in higher education institutions, how can we justify this?”
Prof Feely questioned why, given the changes and competitive forces facing the State, we should be “constraining our ability to reflect these with agility and ambition within Irish higher education”.
“We are doing the very best we can in an underfunded system, and we in UCD are delivering extraordinary things, but we could do so much more if the funding gap even to the international average – though of course we like to portray ourselves as well above average among knowledge economies – were closed,” she said.
“This gap is the single biggest threat to our university’s ability to deliver on our ambitions over the coming years.”
Prof Feely said the Government recently assessed the funding gap in higher education at €307 million annually and has pledged to bridge this over successive budgets.
“There is a €1.5 billion surplus in the National Training Fund. The underfunding of higher education, acknowledged time and time again in international benchmarking, will without question limit what this country can achieve for itself and how we can contribute to addressing global challenges,” she said.
“The National Training Fund can be an important, and is indeed an obvious, element of the solution if the will is there.”
Recruitment restrictions that were introduced following the economic crash just over a decade ago have been blamed on a deterioration in student-staff ratios.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris this year said universities are being given the green light to appoint 1,500 new permanent staff this year on foot of additional funding provided in last year’s budget.
A total of 1,562 posts are being shared across the third-level sector this year, with Atlantic Technological University set to get the single biggest increase (192), followed by UCD (156), TU Dublin (150), University of Limerick (140), UCC (124) and Trinity College Dublin (119).
Officials are discussing replacing this employment control framework with a new system which “better aligns with current realities in the sector”.
Critics say hiring restrictions at a time of rising student numbers have led to overcrowded lectures, reduced access to laboratories and limited access to libraries and support for vulnerable learners.
Student-staff ratios are about 23:1 in Ireland, according to latest figures, compared with a European norm of 15:1.
Lecturers also say employment controls have resulted in more precarious and short-term contracts for younger staff in particular.