Government to examine ways of improving university performance in global rankings

Higher Education Authority chief warns that funding for system is ‘not sustainable’

The Department of Education is to work with universities to identify ways of improving their performance in international rankings.

This follows the latest set of figures which saw most Irish universities tumble down the global league table.

Trinity College Dublin lost its status as Ireland's only top-100 university in the QS World University Rankings, while five other institutions lost significant ground on their international rivals.

Speaking at seminar on higher education funding at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor said while rankings were flawed, they can impact on international perceptions of our university system.


“I believe it is important that - working together with the university sector - we develop a deeper understanding of the key drivers of Ireland’s rankings,” she said.

“We need to be able to explain better the factors driving performance, highlighting where we believe the approach could be improved.

“Indeed, also seeking to ensure that we do not miss opportunities through appropriate actions to improve our standing.”

Senior academics say Government-imposed caps on staffing, growing student numbers and a decade of under-investment are to blame for the poor performance of Irish universities.

However, Ms Mitchell O’Connor said the rankings did not measure the quality of teaching or access initiatives to tackle educational disadvantage.

At the same event, Dr Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, warned that the funding system for the sector was "not sustainable".

He said the number of students has been climbing at a time of decreased State investment.

“Higher education and research will continue to underpin Ireland’s economic and social development but only where we have a sustainable funding model. We do not have one at present,” he said.

Dr Love noted that State investment in higher education fell by 38 per cent from €2 billion in 2009 to €1.3 billion in 2016.

He said annual cost of an average undergraduate student is estimated at about €9,200.

This meant that, even after a student pays €3,000, another €6,200 must be found from “somewhere” to meet the cost of that investment.

“For every new place that we wish to create in our system, we need to ensure that money is also provided if we do not wish quality to be threatened,” he said.

Former trade union leader Peter Cassells, who led a Government-commissioned report on the future funding of higher education, said a decision was needed on how to fund the sector.

While his report which set out options for funding the sector - including an income-contingent loan scheme - the Government has yet to take a decision on the findings.

“We are probably coming to the stage where decisions need to be made,” he said.

Meanwhile, an opinion poll indicates the vast majority of the public want increased investment in higher education.

The Behaviour & Attitudes poll of more than 1,000 adults, commissioned by the Coalition for Publicly-Funded Higher Education, found that 82 per cent supported increased State investment.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent