Ireland's two top universities have fallen further in a prestigious global league table, heightening concerns about the damage being caused to third-level education by a funding shortage.
The country's top-rated university, Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), has dropped from 129th to 138th place in the UK-based Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. University College Dublin (UCD) has plummeted out of the top 200 and is down from 161st to a band sharing 226-250 places.
On a bright note, NUI Galway rose 53 places to share 251-275th position, taking third place nationally, ahead of University College Cork (UCC).
While UCD president Professor Andrew Deeks has queried the methodology used for the rankings, he and others agree that Irish universities need more funding if they are to compete on a world stage.
Higher Education Authority (HEA) chief executive Tom Boland warned: "There should be no doubt that we are now at a tipping point".
The HEA, the state-funding arm for third-level, has already advised of serious risks to the quality of the Irish system if current funding arrangements are not addressed.
Trinity's Dean of Research, Professor Vinny Cahill said: "with new and far-better-funded universities in Asia-Pacific storming ahead, it's no longer enough to slightly improve your score.
"Our universities are sliding because we can't compete on funding. On a per academic basis, Trinity's annual budget is 45pc lower than that of the average top 200 university."
Close inspections of the rankings show that many colleges are tightly bunched and a difference of even a few points can have a big impact on final placing.
Even though Irish universities have improved scores in some areas, they are being overtaken, with high spending universities in Asia, in particular, picking up pace.
California Institute of Technology holds on to the world number one spot ahead of Harvard University in the US and University of Oxford in the UK
Leading Asian institutions continue their march, with 24 in the top 200.
The table of the world's top 400 universities is based on 13 performance indicators, grouped into five areas, with 60pc of marks going for research activity and its influence, measured by the number of times the work is cited.
"A decrease in the ranking for any Irish university is not good for Ireland," said Professor Cahill.
"In the recent economic downturn, we continued to do world-class research, to attract international staff and students, to partner with industry, and to deliver a strong education.
"However, this is a wake-up call for the higher education sector where more sustained investment is needed to drive societal and economic renewal".
Professor Deeks said UCD's ranking changes were "very puzzling", coming two weeks after the release of another similar table, QS, which showed UCD holding its place at 139th.
"A fall in the THE table while we hold our place in the QS, shows that there are some issues with the methodology used by the Times Higher Education," he said.
He noted that 17 universities in the top 200 have moved more than 30 places in the THE table, while the equivalent number in the QS was only two.
"Clearly a table with big swings each year generates more attention than one that changes slowly. Yet universities, by their nature, change on a long time scale.
He said UCD "is a great university doing very well, given the constraints of this age of austerity. However, if we are to continue to compete with Australian and UK universities, we must ensure that the total money Irish universities receive per student is increased to a level similar to our competitors". Prof Deeks said that in the current funding environment, student-staff ratios and the retention of staff recruited internationally remain significant challenges."
NUI Galway president Professor Jim Browne attributed the university's improved ranking "to our very focused approach to developing our international reputation in a select set of research areas".
Rankings editor Phil Baty described it as a "real shock result for Ireland. Competition in the global knowledge economy is intensifying, and Ireland needs to invest and work hard strategically to stay competitive against the rising nations of Asia."