You can blame the methodology of university rankings, you can criticise the way higher education is now in thrall to them, but there is no denying they matter.
UCD's plummeting down the Times Higher Education (THE) league table, one of the "holy trinity" of international rankings, will hurt it particularly.
Five years ago, the Dublin university was in the top 100, ranked by THE – a British publishing firm – at 94th in the world. Now it is in the 226-250 bracket. The news is little better for Trinity College Dublin, which has gone from 76th in 2010 to 138th.
The two universities have pointed to the cuts of recent years as one of the reasons for the trend. The Irish Universities’ Association, which represents the State’s seven universities, this week published figures showing income per student had fallen 22 per cent between 2008 and 2014. In the same period, exchequer funding to higher education institutions has dropped 32 per cent – from €1.4 billion to €938.9 million.
Another 1 per cent cut in core pay is being demanded this year, and university presidents complain they are unable to move fast enough to meet market demands due to austerity-era spending controls.
The main impact of the cuts has been on the student-staff ratio, which is one of the major factors used by all the ranking agencies. In five years, the ratio has gone from 23:1 to 27:1 here. The average staff-student ratio in the THE top 400 is 13:1.
Our universities also lag behind on research income, with the THE estimating average research income per academic here at $100,000 (€79,000) compared to $229,000 across the top 400 as a whole.
The other major factor in the slide is greater competition. Along with the two other ranking agencies, QS (which ranked 863 universities this year) and Shanghai (which ranked 500), the THE has broadened its survey year after year to include more universities from Asia.
The three agencies give greater weight to different factors. The THE puts heavy emphasis on teaching and research, Shanghai on reputation and QS a mixture of the two. But the vagaries of the tables have led to accusations that some universities are "cheating" the rankings by, for example, taking on a Nobel Prize winner as a guest lecturer or massaging figures for international students.
Underlying this concern is the fact that the three are private companies. The THE and QS used to conduct a ranking together but found it more profitable to stay apart. Interestingly, in their last combined ranking in 2009, TCD was 43rd in the world, and UCD 89th.
To wrest some control over the situation, the European Commission has funded a new ranking system U-Multirank (umultirank.org), which avoids producing composite league tables but instead allows students to compare strengths and weaknesses across category headings.
The latest ratings have led to pleas for more money but there are deeper policy questions, including whether the State can sustain so many universities competing for “world class” status.
That number is set to grow further under Government plans to create technological universities, largely in response to political campaigning in Waterford and other regions.