Irish universities plummet on international league table
TCD and UCD presidents insist the decision on increased third-level funding cannot be delayed
Cash-strapped Irish universities are plummeting further down international league tables, causing serious damage to our global reputation for graduate quality and research.
Austerity-era funding reductions and a staffing embargo - while student numbers are soaring - have left Irish universities struggling on all fronts.
The shocking legacy of years of cuts has triggered a warning from university presidents that the day of reckoning has arrived - and that decisions on funding higher education cannot be delayed any further.
TCD provost Dr Patrick Prendergast and UCD president Prof Andrew Deeks have taken the unusual step of issuing a joint statement saying that politicians "must now make the difficult choices that are needed".
The two presidents have called for the implementation of the Cassells Report on funding for third level, which says that the system needs an additional €600m a year by 2021.
That opens up the political minefield of who will pay the extra investment - and whether students should be asked for a higher contribution on a 'study now, pay later' basis, repaid through a loan scheme.
The country's highest-ranked university, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), has plunged 20 places in a year, to 98th, in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17, which is topped by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
TCD is now perilously close to being outside the elite top 100 - while the country's largest university, University College Dublin (UCD), has dropped 22 places to 176th.
The scale of Ireland's fall is clear when compared with 2008, when Trinity was 49th and UCD was 108th.
Six of the seven Irish universities, and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), have slipped in the overall table - the only exception being NUI Galway which has moved up into the top 250.
QS rates universities using measures such as staffing levels, employability of graduates and research impact, and Irish colleges covered are struggling on a number of fronts, including:
- Seven have lost ground on staff-student ratios. Shockingly, UCD is now rated 501st in the world on this scale, compared with 86th in 2008;
- Seven have dropped down the employer reputation scale;
- Five have fallen in terms of their research impact, although Trinity and UCD have both risen.
QS head of research Ben Sowter said that higher education spending was heavily correlated with rankings performance and that in Ireland's case "the effect of seven years of higher-education cuts are laid bare by this year's rankings".
Dr Prendergast and Prof Deeks said that higher education cuts "are often invisible at first and it can take several years for their damaging effects to become obvious. That day has now come".
They warn that "the decline suffered by the Irish universities will have long-term effects. It will be noted by overseas investors, employers, potential international students, academics and researchers".
The two presidents say a significant start must be made in next month's Budget to signal that the Government is serious about investing in young people.
Irish Universities Association (IUA) chief executive Ned Costello said: "We can no longer hide from the corrosive effect which years of cutbacks are having on our higher education system. An immediate injection of funding is required to fund more lecturers, deliver smaller group teaching, and restore quality in our system.
"Other countries have recognised that investment in research and developing the skills and competences of bright young students is the key to economic and social success."
Industry has thrown its weight behind the universities, with Martin Murphy, MD of Hewlett-Packard Ireland, saying it was no coincidence that "Asian universities are making a bigger and bigger mark in the rankings as their governments invest massively in their higher education and research systems. They know full well that investment will eventually translate into sustainable jobs".
Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) general secretary Mike Jennings said the Budget must provide funds "to enable universities to recover from a decade of what now seems like deliberate neglect and downgrading of third-level education".