Universities warn student-staff ratios near ‘critical’ levels

Third-level institutions rebuff Quinn’s demand for further savings

The ratio of students to staff has sharply increased at universities, new figures show, in a trend that threatens to further damage Ireland’s standing in global rankings for higher education. In a five-year period, the ratio has gone up from 23:1 to 27:1, a level that “puts us on a par with what would have been a bad polytechnic in the UK”, a university source remarked.

The data, based on university staffing returns to the Higher Education Authority (HEA), shows core staff numbers have decreased by 12 per cent since 2008, while student numbers have increased by 10 per cent. In the five years to 2011/12, the student-staff ratio widened by 17 per cent.

Other data supplied by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) to The Irish Times from university accounts says exchequer funding – excluding research – has declined by 36.4 per cent between 2008 and 2014. The universities are rebuffing demands from Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn to deliver more efficiencies, saying further cuts will do permanent damage to the sector and hinder economic recovery.

Fund the sector
Mr Quinn has asked the HEA to report before the end of the year on how to fund the sector into the future, with university presidents calling for either a return of admission fees or a boost in grant aid.

IUA chairman and provost of Trinity College Dublin Dr Patrick Prendergast, who is hosting a symposium of international experts on the issue in the autumn, said: "This is about the future of our country, not that of any one university. But the stakes are high, and we must all work together to find common cause." Staff student ratios are one of the factors which influence global rankings, aside from criteria such as academic reputation and research funding. Irish universities, which have recently slipped down several global rankings, point out that their equivalents in Britain have ratios in the region of 14-16:1.


Prof Sarah Moore, chairwoman of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, said international teaching experts speak of 25:1 as a "critical" student-staff threshold. While some universities have looked at online learning as a means of generating efficiencies, she said "unless you have individuals at the end of that helping students develop then you're not using new technology to do good teaching. "The funding issue can't be just resolved by e-learning," she said. The HEA is currently negotiating performance contracts with all higher-level institutions as part a new "strategic dialogue" process.

Make savings
Institutions are being urged to make savings by avoiding the duplication of courses and exploring new revenue streams.

Of the broader financial challenge, Dr Prendergast said: “As the economic indicators start to point in a more positive direction, now is the time for a collective debate, without preconditions, about the profile of the funding model that will meet the development needs of higher education.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column