Trinity College Dublin is considering cutting its intake of Irish students by up to a quarter over the next five years in order to protect the quality of its education.
Such a move would likely result in a sharp increase in the number of CAO points required for courses due to increased competition for fewer places.
However, it would maintain its lucrative international student numbers who currently account for about 20 per cent of the college’s enrolment.
The university is drawing up a five-year strategic plan and one option under consideration is reducing student numbers by 5 per cent each year over the next five years.
This would see the number of Irish students fall from about 14,400 at present to just over 11,000, a drop of about 3,400.
Trinity's provost Dr Patrick Prendergast has confirmed that such a move may be needed in order to reduce the student-staff ratio, which he said was out of kilter with competitor countries.
He said Trinity currently has one lecturer for every 18 students, compared to an average across UK universities of one lecturer for every 14 students. Among the UK’s top universities, there is one lecturer for every 10 students.
Dr Prendergast acknowledged that cutting Irish student numbers would be a big step, but said it was a step that may be needed in the absence of additional State funding.
“We’re considering it, we’re presently formulating our next five-year strategic plan and we have to work this out,” he said.
“What we know is that our staff-student ratio is very high, much higher than international norms. That means we either have to increase the number of academic staff or reduce student numbers,” he told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.
He said Trinity’s dramatic fall in international university rankings was due in large part to its staff-student ratios.
Last month, Trinity dropped by more than 40 places in the prestigious Times Higher Education Rankings, to 164th position in the world. It was the biggest drop of any college in the top-200.
He said the plan under consideration involved keeping international student numbers at the current level rather than replacing Irish students with them.
“This is about reducing the total number of Irish students - not substituting them ... we’re going to have to realise that we don’t have the academic staff to teach the students we already have. That’s what the rankings are telling us,” Dr Prendergast said.
He said State funding per student was down from an average of €9,000 a decade ago to €5,000 now.
The college has expanded in recent decades from about 8,000 students to 18,000 students.
Dr Prendergast’s comments come ahead of next week’s Budget. An increased levy on employers and a new “human capital” initiative are likely to results in additional funding for the sector.
However, universities argue that much of this additional funding is swallowed up by meeting the demands of higher student numbers and salary increased on foot of public sector pay deals.
The Government has also come in for criticism over the level of funding available for research at third level.
It emerged last month that Ireland had won only one out of 400 European research grants.
Dr Prendergast said public money previously used to fund original research is now used to support industry research and job creation.
He said at least half of this should be put into universities to be driven by individual researchers on a competitive basis.