If the State can't bankroll higher education, the students must
THE answer is money.
The question is how Ireland is going to compete, as it must, with world-class higher education systems, when global league tables throw up disappointing placings for its two top universities.
The figures vary slightly between the 'Times Higher Education' table, putting Trinity in 110th place (albeit up seven places) and UCD down to 187th, and the QS rankings released last month, with Trinity at 67th and UCD at 131st.
Three years ago, there were two Irish institutions in the QS top 100, with one in the top 50.
The detail may be different but the message is the same: Ireland is losing ground in a race where countries pouring money into higher education are outpacing the rest of the field.
In fairness, it is not only Ireland that is suffering. The big push in the rankings is coming from wealthy Asia-Pacific countries and it is knocking universities in many Western countries, including the US and UK, off their perches.
But Ireland is suffering more -- and at a very vulnerable time -- by virtue of the economic crisis that has led to even less being spent on higher education.
One measure of the Irish cuts is worsening staff-student ratios; while third-level staff numbers are reducing, student enrolments are rising and will be about 165,000 this year.
Rankings impact on reputation and in a global world it matters whether Ireland is seen as a heavy hitter. It matters whether Irish universities measure up to those in the Netherlands or Singapore. Why would an investor put money for research into a university outside the top 100?
When would a fee-paying international student seeking a third-level education in an English-speaking country go down the list to an Irish university, when there are many other options higher up the field?
There is a strategy being put in place to enhance the quality of higher education in Ireland, through greater inter-college collaborations and performance measurement.
But the other wing to the strategy is deciding how to fund the desired world-class system, how to sustain the massive growth in student numbers, while also delivering quality.
A forthcoming report is likely to conclude that if the Government cannot, or will not, put more money into higher education, then the students must. The fees question has not gone away.