OUR reputation for providing a great education has suffered another blow as three universities drop down the international league table.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD) and NUI Galway (NUIG) have all lost ground to competitors in the respected QS World University Rankings.
University presidents blamed cutbacks for the slippage, which will damage the Government's drive to promote Ireland as a world-class education destination. The rankings also raise questions about funding and, inevitably, whether fees must return.
UCD president Hugh Brady said: "The time for procrastination on the national funding model has to end if we wish to prevent our world ranking from slipping further.
"We cannot possibly compete at the top when, for example, our UK peers are now routinely charging £9,000 (€10,280) in undergraduate fees".
It will also make it more difficult to attract top academics to Ireland.
Tapping into the global education market and attracting lucrative foreign students is seen as crucial for the future of third-level education in Ireland.
The QS World University Rankings are one of the most widely referenced guides, and survey academics and employers.
However, while the academics have downgraded Irish universities, there was good news in the QS employers' survey.
This gave Irish colleges a better rating than last year -- suggesting that employers still have faith in the system.
The academics' survey is the single most important measure used by QS, accounting for 40pc of the overall score.
Since last year, TCD is down 13 places to 65, UCD has dropped 20 to 134, and NUIG has plunged from 232 to 298.
However, University College Cork (UCC), the only other Irish university in the top 300, bucked the trend by rising three places to 181.QS Advisory Board member John O'Leary said cuts were the reason for the deterioration in Ireland's position.
He noted that universities were forced to cut staffing by 6pc since 2009 while, during the same period, undergraduate student intake grew by around 12pc.
Mr O'Leary said: "This has resulted in decreased scores for student-faculty ratio."
TCD Provost Patrick Prendergast said: "A world-class university requires resourcing at internationally competitive levels and for Trinity to sustain its position and increase further worldwide requires adequate investment in the university sector."
NUI Galway president Jim Browne said it was critical for Ireland to maintain its investment in universities if it was to remain competitive.
The QS rankings are based on surveys of more than 32,000 academics and 16,000 employers, the largest of its kind ever conducted.
This is the second major international education rankings in less than a year where Ireland has taken a knocking.
Last year's OECD PISA report showed a significant deterioration in the performance of Irish 15-year-olds in mathematics and reading.
The QS findings will be a blow to the Government's hopes of doubling the number of fee-paying students from outside the EU.
They want to increase the current number from 26,000 to more than 50,000 by 2015.
Each international student is worth an average €20,000 a year in fees and expenses.
The hope is that later in their careers, such foreign students will help to open up trading opportunities or choose Ireland for business investment.
Main targets are China, India, the US and the Middle East.