QS World University Rankings: President of UCD and Provost of Trinity issue joint statement calling for Government action to address funding crisis in higher education

Rankings have their limitations but the fact that our universities have fallen so far in recent years reflects the reality that successive governments have not invested sufficiently in Irish education. It appears easy for governments to reduce higher education spending because the cuts are often invisible at first and it can take several years for their damaging effects to become obvious. That day has now come. Today, we see the inevitable result of under investment.

The declines suffered by the Irish universities in recent years will have long-term effects. It will be noted by overseas investors, employers, potential international students, academics and researchers.

According to the Cassels group core funding per student dropped 22% between 2007/2008 and 2013/2014. Student staff ratios have soared far above the OECD average and student numbers jumped by 18%. The expert group predicts a further 29% increase in student numbers up to 2028 over 2013 levels. The group warned in its final report in July that the increase in student numbers has been “funded from internal efficiencies and by other cost cutting measures that, by and large, have been exhausted.” We agree. Universities have done everything they can to mitigate the collapse in funding. New links have been forged with universities in Asia and North America, leading to a sharp increase in the number of fee-paying students from outside the European Union. Revenue from commercial activities has also soared and account for an increasingly large share of university budgets.

Given the increase in student numbers and the recruitment embargo in the higher education sector, it is not surprising that measure of this student:staff ratio measure in today’s QS Rankings shows Trinity falling from position of 80 in 2008 to 330 this year while the student staff ratio at UCD has had suffered an even more serious decline from 86 to 501 over the same period.

The group, which was chaired by Peter Cassells, said that higher education was one of the key factors that enabled the Irish economy to grow strongly in the past four decades. But it warned that the system’s continued contribution to social and economic development was now severely threatened.

Other countries have recognised that investment in research and in developing the skills and competences of bright young students is the key to economic and social success. As a small open economy which is heavily dependent on FDI and on the employment of highly educated staff, we cannot afford to fall behind our competitor countries in terms of investment in higher education. The most recent Department of Education figures show the annual expenditure on third level educational institutions per student relative to GDP per capita places Ireland 29th out of 32 OECD countries.

The Cassells group said that annual additional funding of €600m was needed by 2021 and €1b by 2030 to deliver higher quality outcomes and provide for increased demographics. This would allow an improvement in student:staff ratios, better engagement with students, and improved support services for lecturers and students. It also called for an urgent review of the capital building programme and said that a capital investment programme of €5.5b was needed over the next 15 years to sufficiently cater for increased student numbers, capital upgrades, health and safety issues, equipment renewal and ongoing maintenance. It further recommended an additional €100m to deliver a more effective system of student financial aid.

As the presidents of the two highest ranked universities we now take the unusual step of calling jointly on the Government and opposition parties to implement the Cassells report. The political system must now make the difficult choices that are needed to improve the funding given to universities and in the manner in which this funding is distributed.

A significant start has to be made in the forthcoming budget to signal that the government is serious about investing in our young people and providing them with the skills needed to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive global environment. The future of the country depends on it.

Professor Andrew Deeks 
University College Dublin

Professor Patrick Prendergast
Trinity College Dublin