John J Boland: ‘To have our top university ranked 78th is not good enough’

Higher education has not been a Government priority

Trinity College Dublin, dropped from 71st place to 78th; UCD dropped to 154th place	 in QS rankings

Trinity College Dublin, dropped from 71st place to 78th; UCD dropped to 154th place in QS rankings

 

The continuing slide of Irish universities was reaffirmed by today’s QS World University Rankings. While much will be said in coming days about the relative ranking of our universities, sadly this debate will miss the key point. The real competition is the rest of the world, and to have our top university ranked 78th in the world is simply not good enough for Ireland, our students or our ambition to become a leading- edge knowledge-driven economy.

So why do international rankings matter? At the simplest level it means our sons and daughters will increasingly look abroad for a university education. The numbers now doing so are modest but growing. Education-driven migration is endemic in larger countries like the US.

In our case, however, it could create a new type of enforced emigration that would reduce the prospects of our children ever returning home.

And we can forget those aspirations of attracting high-quality foreign students. Poorly ranked Irish universities will never become important players in university education. Foreign governments simply won’t cover the cost of sending their students to low ranked universities.

A world-class university education has importance beyond individual students, in the development of a more creative, inclusive and innovative society. Universities are now recognised as economic engines and the research, infrastructure and talent they develop are a major attractor for industry and key to the IDA’s foreign direct investment (FDI) strategy.

A low corporation tax strategy is no longer sufficient. The search is for educated talent with a capacity for innovation and idea-generation. Every day, large companies make decisions on where to invest next, decisions increasingly being informed by the locations of the most highly ranked universities.

Reduced funding

So why are Irish universities sliding down the international league tables? The obvious answer is the level of investment made here compared to elsewhere in the EU and the Far East – our competitors for FDI. The reduced funding has been exacerbated by a large increase in student numbers and reductions in staff size. Indeed student-to-faculty ratio is a key metric in all university rankings.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) reported a ratio of one academic per 19.5 students in 2014, which compares unfavourably with low double-digit and even single-digit values of our international competitors. The average for top 200 universities, is one academic per 11.7 students. The average for top 400 universities is one academic per 12.5 students.

The ratio not only affects class size but determines how, and at what level, we can teach, and affects the capacity for research and the ability to engage with industry to assist FDI.

Despite this, Irish universities have been remarkably successful: we have eight in the top 700, six universities in the top 500, and one in the top 100. Irish universities have consistently delivered for Ireland, providing a standard of education and excellence that is disproportionately high compared with the level of funding. In reality we are now living off the legacy of prudent investments that were made in the late 1990s and 2000s.

The programme for research in third level institutions and the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland helped transform the university landscape. However, rather than build on this platform, there has been a slow and continuous erosion of funding in the past decade.

Continuum

Education from pre-school to higher level and beyond should be seen as a continuum. Second level and primary level education have been hit severely by austerity measures.

For third level, the current situation can be captured in a single statistic: the funding per university student in Ireland has now dropped below that at second level. Higher education has not been a priority at Government level.

While these early legacy investments have served us well, a downward slide in the world university rankings is inevitable unless we urgently invest more in the Irish university system. The rankings don’t lie, and the potential reputational damage is immense. To do otherwise we will fail to realise the true potential of our brightest talent, and undermine our economic competitiveness.

John J Boland is the dean and vice-president for research at Trinity College Dublin

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