Irish universities being left in the slipstream of our competitors
Ambition to be the best education system in Europe seems a long way off
From left: Aleksandra Nicpon, Grace Akinwunmi and Aliona Tanase, after their Leaving Cert English paper, at Mercy Secondary School, Inchicore, Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
International university rankings are deeply-flawed measures of third-level colleges, produced by commercial organisations.
But there’s no escaping the fact that they are highly influential indicators which guide foreign investment and flows of international students.
That’s why the latest set of university rankings have sparked alarm within higher education.
Irish universities have tumbled downwards, with Trinity College Dublin losing its status as our only top-100 university.
Senior academics say Government-imposed caps on staffing, growing student numbers and a decade of under-investment have taken their toll.
In the meantime, Irish universities are being left in the slipstream of those in rival jurisdictions such as China who are benefitting from massive investment.
It is tempting on one level to dismiss this as an issue of little real concern to Irish students.
They are, after all, getting jobs and our graduates are well-regarded internationally. But there are real reasons to be concerned.
The quality of teaching is under strain in Irish third level. Over the past decade, student numbers in many colleges have risen by more than 20 per cent.
However, staff numbers have remained static due to Government-imposed recruitment restrictions. This has led to overcrowded classes, reduced access to practicals and less support for individual students. This shows up in student-teacher ratios, a key metric used in international rankings.
Take the case of UCD. A decade ago, the university ranked in the top-100 (86th place) for student-teacher ratios. Following employment restrictions and reduced State funding, it has plummeted to 536th place globally.
Last year, UCD’s president warned that it may have to reduce Irish student numbers to tackle this problem.
This could limit supply at a time when student numbers are rising, sending CAO points even higher still.
It is clear, then, that either drastic measures or extra funding will be needed if we really are serious about – to quote the Government’s favourite phrase – creating the best education and training system in Europe.
But it’s hard to see where funding will come from. Hard-pressed families and students are already paying the second-highest fees in Europe.
The prospect of an income-contingent student loan scheme – which could allow for further increases – is off the agenda after the Government recently opted to kick this can down the road.
The private sector, meanwhile, has grumbled over being forced to contribute extra to higher education through increases to the National Training Fund.
This leaves the public sector. The Government says it has invested more than €100 million this year compared to 2016.
The reality, however, is that this money is simply keeping most universities standing still.
Funding per individual student has nudged upwards only slightly because most extra money has gone to paying for public sector pay increases.
If there is to be a surge in investment, it is hard to see where it will come from given competing demands on the public purse.
One potential answer is to boost university autonomy and relax Government restrictions.
Most universities now generate the bulk of their income privately. It is questionable whether the Government should wield such authority within a sector when it is becoming a minority investor.