The gap between Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD) has narrowed to just 16 places in the latest Times Higher Education league table, the closest margin since the rankings began.
TCD has slid from 138th in the world to 160th in the 2015/16 edition, published Wednesday night, while UCD is up more than 50 places to 176th.
It puts UCD back in the top 200 after it fell out of that bracket last year, a development warmly welcomed in Belfield. However, TCD’s fall will generate alarm in wider education circles.
In the first Times Higher Education (THE) ranking in 2010/11, TCD was ranked at 76, and UCD 94.
The previous year, TCD stood as high as 43rd in the world in a joint THE/QS survey, with UCD 89th.
There was mixed fortunes for other universities in Ireland. Despite its economic woes, Queen's University, Belfast was up to 200th place from 251-275.
NUI Galway was unchanged at 251-300, while the Royal College of Surgeons joined this bracket from 351-400 last year.
UCC slipped from 276-300 to 351-400, just two weeks after QS put it at 233rd in the world in its standalone ranking.
This year’s THE survey covered 800 institutions worldwide, compared to 400 last year, which has let five other higher education institutions from Ireland into the league table.
Maynooth University will be happy with its inaugural listing in the 351-400 bracket, ahead of DCU (401-500), Ulster University (401-500), University of Limerick (501-600), and Dublin Institute of Technology (601-800).
UCD shares 176th place with Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The universities of Aberdeen, Auckland, Barcelona and Konstanz (Germany) lie just above them, while filling the two places below are Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Canada’s University of Waterloo.
At 160, Trinity is one place below University of Rochester in the US and one place above Russia’s Lomonosov Moscow State University.
QS and THE are regarded as two of the “big three” international league tables, the other being the Shanghai Ranking.
Each places a difference emphasis on factors such as income, research output and global reputation.
Among 13 key indicator used by THE are staff-to-student ratio, PhDs awarded and proportion of international students on campus. Irish universities have struggled in all of these areas due to factors such as staff cutbacks, withdrawal of financial supports for postgraduates, and lack of on-campus student accommodation.
Phil Baty, THE rankings editor, said that, while institutions here had performed well, "Ireland will have to put higher education further up its national agenda if it is to truly make its mark in this prestigious list."
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) retained number one spot in the global league table.
University of Oxford, where Waterford woman Prof Louise Richardson takes up the helm in January 2016, filled second place, ahead of Stanford and Cambridge.
The methodology used by THE had been seen to favour Anglo-American universities but this year institutions from Continental Europe made major gains, filling 70 places in the top 200, with UK colleges taking another 34 places.
In a statement, TCD highlighted the positives in the latest rankings, saying its teaching and research reputation based the THE’s survey of academics had improved.
Trinity also scored higher in measurements of international outlook, and it increased the number of research papers published academic staff.
Dean of research Prof John Boland said "we are delighted that Trinity College Dublin continues to be recognised globally as Ireland's premier university, competing at the highest international standards", particularly as the number of colleges in the survey this year had doubled.
“A world class university, however, requires resourcing at internationally competitive levels. For Trinity to sustain its position and increase further worldwide, requires sustained investment in the university sector.”
UCD President, Andrew J Deeks said publishing output, research income per staff and citations had all risen considerably this year.
“What is keeping us back is the deficit in State investment in our universities in comparison with other countries,” said Prof Deeks.
“We see the results of strong commitment in other European countries such as the Netherlands, which has 12 universities in the top 200.”
Chief executive of the Higher Education Authority Tom Boland said that, out of 18,000 third level institutions globally, Irish universities along with RCSI and DIT featured in the top 5 per cent, with two (UCD and Trinity) in the top 1 per cent.
“But the deterioration in funding is a cause for serious concern and as we see, it is now being highlighted internationally,” said Mr Boland.