Monday 14 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Ireland's universities do not exist to allow academics a good life'

The answer to the funding shortfall in third-level education is not to keep Irish students out of Trinity, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Trinity College Dublin (Stock picture)
Trinity College Dublin (Stock picture)

Eilis O'Hanlon

In the public sector, there is only ever one solution to problems, and that is to call for more funding. Sadly, Irish universities are no different.

Two stories last week illustrate the tendency. The first revealed that Trinity College in Dublin is considering reducing the number of Irish students who can attend in future unless the Government provides more resources.

The other was a warning from a former president of UCD that, "Ireland's place in European higher education and research has suffered from the past decade of cuts and lack of investment".

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Hugh Brady knows what he's talking about. He's now vice- chancellor of the University of Bristol, and he'd been invited to give an address to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce on what he called this "national crisis".

The only problem with this stark warning is that, despite dropping 44 places in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings to 164th place this year, it could be argued that Trinity isn't doing too badly when set alongside countries of similar size and influence.

The European universities significantly outperforming Irish institutions tend to be concentrated in Germany and the Netherlands, both economic powerhouses, with a scattering in France.

When it comes to countries more comparable to Ireland, their universities tend to perform at a similar or worse level. Norway only has one university in the top 200. So does Austria. Italy, which has a population 10 times that of Ireland and GDP of over $2 trillion, has only two universities above Ireland in the rankings, both in Pisa, and they're only fractionally ahead.

Casting the net further afield, India has a population of over one billion people, and doesn't have any universities ahead of Ireland in the international rankings.

What it does produce is 1.5m newly qualified engineers every year, which may prove somewhat more useful to them going forward than Trinity churning out another bunch of graduates from its Centre for Gender and Women's Studies.

It depends what Ireland decides its universities are for. Do they exist to serve Irish students at a place of historical and cultural importance in the life of the nation, or are they magnets for funding, designed to keep Irish academics in the manner to which they've become accustomed?

The threat to cut the intake of native Irish students in future, while keeping the same level of foreign students, who contribute more in financial terms, suggests it's the latter, especially when the arguments put forward for a possible 5pc annual decrease in Irish students coming through those hallowed gates don't really stand up to scrutiny.

Essentially, Trinity is blaming the staff-to-student ratio for its under performance, if that's what it is. Currently, there are 18 students for every one member of staff, against an international average of 16 to one, and a lower ratio again at elite universities.

For starters, those figures suggest that Ireland isn't that far off the international average.

More pertinently, what these baseline figures don't show is the wide variation in staff-to-student ratios at other universities. Yale may have one member of staff for every five students, but Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany's best performing university, in 32nd place internationally, has a student to staff ratio of 34:1, according to the same THE rankings. The ratio at Humboldt University in Berlin (74th in the world) is actually 56:1.

Clearly it's not just about reducing the number of students that staff at Trinity and other Irish universities have to teach. Making it all about the numbers does risk it sounding as if third-level students are an inconvenience, rather than the very reason why universities exist in the first place. It seems that many academics think colleges exist primarily for them.

Government funding for third-level education has dropped dramatically in the past decade, as a result of austerity, and it would be foolish to deny that this has had no impact on Trinity's fall from grace. The same increase in funding that occurred in the Celtic Tiger - an economic model that left-leaning academics naturally deplored, even if they're now nostalgic for the bounty it bestowed - would surely see Trinity and UCD rise in prestige again. The former was, after all, 77th in the world in 2010.

But it would equally be a mistake to think that the cost of this sacrifice is being borne equally, or that staff at Ireland's oldest university are struggling to make ends meet.

Trinity's financial statement for the year ending September 2018 makes for jaw-dropping reading. It reveals that the only category of staff which is shrinking in number is for those earning €60,000 or less. In every salary band above that figure, there were more people employed than in the previous financial year. There were, in fact, over 240 members of staff earning above €100,000. The number may well have increased since.

The UK-based libertarian pressure group known as the Taxpayers Alliance last week published a top 10 list of British universities with the highest numbers of members of staff earning over £100,000 a year.

Converting that figure into euros would bring the number of staff at Trinity College in the same wage bracket down to around 170, but that would still place it comfortably in the top 10 for high earners, ahead of University College (15th best university in the world, according to THE rankings), and King's College (joint 36th), both based in London.

As a comparison, the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Co Derry, has 65 members of staff earning above £100,000, despite having nearly 25,000 undergraduates and postgraduates. Trinity has approximately 16,000 students, but more than twice the number of high earners on the staff.

Those earning the highest salaries in Irish and British universities include executives and administrators as well as academic staff, though there is often an overlap, but Irish academics are, by any measure, doing very well compared to their international counterparts.

Full professors in Norway earn an average equivalent of only around €80,000. Academics in France are much more modestly paid as well. It's simply not true that extremely high wages are the only way to attract suitably qualified staff, and that Irish universities therefore have no choice but to match the highest salaries available elsewhere.

Perhaps one way to reduce staff-to-student ratios would be to agree reductions in salaries to less inequitable levels, thereby allowing more academics to be brought into colleges while not shutting the doors to Irish undergraduates and centuries of tradition with it. Not least because the evidence suggests that this would end up disproportionately affecting less well-off students.

Middle-class parents will always find a way to give their little darlings the head start needed to get into Trinity or UCD, even with reduced intakes. Parents in more economically deprived areas won't have the same know how. Fee-paying schools will find a way to give their pupils that much-needed edge. That's what all those well-heeled solicitors and doctors and accountants are paying for, after all. That, and the life-long social networks that it opens up, of course.

If you can no longer secure a place at the same university mummy and daddy went to all those years ago, what's the point of an education at all?

The answer is certainly not, as Hugh Brady suggested to the Chamber of Commerce, to regret that Ireland didn't follow the British example. There, students now graduate with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and worthless degrees for their trouble. Bog-standard universities in the UK are now able to charge premier league fees whilst offering second and third division education. It is students who pay the price. What would Ireland get by copying that model, all in return for an artificial bump in world rankings?

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