Students used as ‘pawns’ in Trinity College funding row

USI president questions global rankings as provost warns student numbers may be cut

Students are being used as pawns in a university’s row with the Government over the effect of insufficient funding on international rankings, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has claimed.

USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick said third-level education is underfunded and colleges are forced to compete with each other for project-based funding.

But she said that Trinity College Dublin’s warning it may have to cut numbers to recover its position in international rankings is using students as “pawns”.

Ms Fitzpatrick was speaking following remarks by Trinity College provost Dr Patrick Prendergast who accused the Government of failing to fund third-level colleges when there were “red flags all over the place” including the university’s recent fall by more than 40 places in the Times Higher Education Rankings to 164th in the world.


In an interview in The Sunday Business Post Dr Prendergast said State funding per student was down from an average of €9,000 a decade ago to €5,000 now while the student to staff ratio was 18:1 compared to 10:1 in the top-scored universities. Student numbers at the college have risen from 8,000 in the 1980s to 18,000.

He was quoted as saying that maybe we cut Irish student numbers by 5 per cent a year over the next 10 years. But it would be terrible to have to do that in a way because “we are here to serve all our students.”

But Ms Fitzpartick said colleges were already treating international students as “cash cows” because they pay higher fees and that universities should not be using students as pawns.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” she said. And the USI president added that international rankings “are problematic because of what they are measuring and how they are measured”.

How much is being spent?

A senior Department of Education source said, however, that €1.76 billion is being spent on higher-level education. A rise of 17 per cent since 2016 and €350 million since the publication of the Cassells report on options for future funding of third-level education.

“Where do they want the money to come from? Do they want the taxpayer to pay for it or students?”

The source added that the rankings are related to research and the particular criticism of Trinity was linked to research, rather than teaching.

Ms Fitzpatrick said, however, that the funding was based on competition between colleges and some colleges had more resources and were able to make better applications for funding for particular projects.

She said the Cassells report called for an increase in baseline funding.

The report also noted the option of an income-contingent loan scheme that students would repay once a certain salary level had been achieved, a proposal the Trinity provost favours.

Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne agreed with Dr Prendergast's criticism of the Government over its funding. But he said it would be "completely unacceptable" for Trinity College to cut its student numbers to recover its position in international rankings.

Mr Byrne said the Government did not take international rankings seriously at all and had shown complete disdain for rankings.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times