Thursday 29 September 2016

Universities also have to ask themselves a few questions about their slide in rankings

Published 08/09/2016 | 02:30

‘At the top end of the pay scale we still have professor pay grades that are higher than Oxford, ranked sixth-best in the world ranking, Cambridge – pictured above – in fourth place, or Edinburgh’
‘At the top end of the pay scale we still have professor pay grades that are higher than Oxford, ranked sixth-best in the world ranking, Cambridge – pictured above – in fourth place, or Edinburgh’

The sizeable falls in world university rankings of practically all Irish universities is adding to the pressure on the Government to take some action on third-level funding. The current model is broken. Universities are griping that the reason they are falling down the global rankings is because of cutbacks in the system during the austerity years, that have not been rectified.

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The QS World University Rankings 2016/2017 table does make for depressing reading regarding the state of our universities.

Trinity College Dublin slid 20 places to 98th and remains in the top 100 by the skin of its teeth. UCD fell 22 places to 176th. NUIG was the only gainer and it climbed 22 places to 249th.

To put it in context, Trinity was ranked in 43rd place in 2009, while UCD was in 89th.

Ranked by course, neither Trinity nor UCD make the top 100 for either computer science or business and management studies.

The federation which represents third-level teachers took to the airwaves pretty quickly to say it was all a disaster waiting to happen and funding needs to be increased.

One of the problems with universities is that it can be difficult to measure progress or deterioration accurately. If a father and son went to the same university 30 years apart how would one know if it was better or worse?

The ranking system does give a guide, but it too cannot measure everything.

The QS World University Rankings survey allocates 40pc of points to a university's academic reputation, which is based on what other academics say about it. It awards another 10pc of marks based on what employers around the world say about it.

One fifth of the points are derived from the student to teacher ratio and another fifth come from the number of times academic work from a particular university is cited elsewhere.

A final 10pc comes from the ratio of international lecturers from outside the country and international students. So, half the marks are based on reputational or subjective criteria. Nevertheless it is a useful indicator.

State funding to universities has been cut dramatically. Back in 2008, just before the Exchequer crash, direct State grants to higher education institutions amounted to around €1.3bn. Last year that figure was €923m. State-funded capital expenditure was €184m in 2008 and just €87m last year.

Yet student numbers have shot up by 40,000 in that period. Part of the problem was the old funding model for university was broken anyway, and it was later replaced with a different broken model.

Take UCD, for example. Back in 2003, 60pc of its income went on staff pay. Average salary and pension benefit per employee, which isn't just academics but all staff, was €47,710 per year.

By 2009 average staff pay had hit €65,800 and staff pay accounted for almost two-thirds of all the money it took in. Something had to give. Last year average pay was down to €53,988, almost identical to the average salary at the University of Edinburgh, which is ranked 19th in the latest QS world rankings.

However, at the top end of the pay scale we still have professor pay grades that are higher than Oxford (6th), Cambridge (4th) or Edinburgh. An examination of the finances of universities on both sides of the Irish Sea shows that providing top class third-level education costs a lot of money.

University of Edinburgh has 36,000 students. UCD has 32,000. Edinburgh has total income from all sources of €1bn per year. UCD's is around half of that. Edinburgh has 6,400 teaching and technical support staff. UCD has around 3,500.

So, if we want to keep up with the best, we are going to have to spend more money. The problem is the cost looks so prohibitive and there is a lack of political will to take some tough decisions.

It is hard to see politicians increasing the spend on universities by hundreds of millions of euro, in exchange for an aspirational and unmeasurable return of improving the overall quality of graduate in Ireland over the long term.

More immediate demands on the limited public purse can yield greater short term political capital, ie votes. Everyone says they believe in better education but depriving other areas of public spending to make our graduates, better is a tough political sell.

The Cassells Report into the future funding of third level education, published earlier this year, identified the pending black hole caused by under-investment and demographic changes.

Higher education institutions currently receive around €1.8bn per year in State grants, student fees and other income. That needs to increase to about €2.8bn in the next 15 years. It also suggested that a capital programme of around €5.5bn is needed in the same time frame.

So who pays? The report looked at several funding options including a deferred payment or State-backed loan scheme for those who attend college. Go now and pay the State back the money when you start earning.

Already college fees are running at up to €3,000 per year. In the UK, they are around €9,000 per year. British universities continue to do well in rankings but such a model is just stirring up trouble for the future by dividing society and closing off university to too many people. Increased funding is genuinely needed. Universities need the money to compete. But government should not simply pour State money or allow for higher fees to be paid into an educational black hole.

Universities and lecturers are asking a lot of questions of government about funding. But are they asking themselves questions about their own performance too?

There has to be a quid pro quo. What guarantees can Irish universities provide about how efficiently they run their operations, about productivity, costs and educational standards?

They haven't done enough to open up enough places to people from different social backgrounds. They have more work to do building relationships with multinationals and smaller businesses.

Any new arrangement would have to be a partnership with quantifiable results.

Equally, there is little point in asking students to rack up future personal debts, or taxpayers to fund massive increases in state funding, only for multi-nationals, which pay very little tax here, to benefit from better quality graduates.

Employers have a role. Many already do play a part in funding third level institutions but very low tax rates combined with optional endowments looks like a win/win for them.

Since the crash, the burden of funding university is falling increasingly on students and their families. For example, back in 2003 UCD collected €90m in student fees. Last year it was €198m.

The austerity of recent years has enabled successive governments to avoid making real commitments on third level education in return for tangible gains.

University rankings never fully capture the quality of a particular institution or the people who work for it. However, this downward slide can't be ignored.

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