The news that Trinity has dropped 20 places, from 78th to 98th, in the QS world university rankings, isn’t a Trinity story; it’s an Irish one. Of the 8 ranked Irish universities, 7 fell in this year’s rankings; only NUI Galway went up, from 271st to 249th. Of the 6 indicators that QS use to rank universities, Trinity rose in 1 – Citations per Faculty, which measures the quality of a university’s research output by counting the number of times that others cite papers written by its academic staff – and fell in 4; Academic Reputation, Employability of Graduates, Number of International Faculty Members, and Faculty/Student Ratio; all of which rely heavily on raw funding. Right now they simply do not have enough.
In July, around the time that the Cassells Report into higher education funding was published, the Provost Patrick Prendergast wrote that the sustained lack of funding for Irish universities meant that they were “on the threshold of a disastrous drop in quality”. It’s clear from this year’s numbers that they’re beginning to teeter over it, and that unless funding increases dramatically, Irish universities will freefall.
The difficulty that has deterred successive Irish governments from tackling the issue has been deciding how to pay. Third level education in Ireland has seen a series of cuts and students a succession of fee-increases since the economic crash, with the consequence that now Ireland is one of the few countries that, even when the student contribution is included, puts more money into second-level than third-level education.
The report commissioned by the Department of Public Expenditure and published by Peter Cassells in July calls for more government investment and an increase in fees to €4000 a year, but with payment deferred until students are in employment; in effect, the government would be spending a lot more money and hoping that they would eventually get it back in about a decade, by burdening new graduates with €16000 in debt.
Cassells talks about a “spectrum of options”, but what he really means is that there is a spectrum of extents to which the government can commit to 2 unattractive options: they can lose the votes of many students and their families, and make college harder to access; or they can put more pressure on taxpayers and take money from elsewhere. To solve the problem, they have to make a decision, and it is likely that they will have to decide to do some of both; as a result, they have so far shelved the issue and done neither. The report by Cassells was dismissed in July to a cross-party committee and the issue of funding has fallen out of discussion.
The price of this negligence on the part of the government is clear: Ben Sowter, Head of Research at QS Intelligence Unit, cites cuts in the numbers of academic staff as the biggest reason for the failure of Irish universities in the ‘academic reputation’ metric, which accounts for 40% of a university’s overall ranking. With higher education spending heavily correlative with a country’s QS performance, since the economic crisis Ireland’s higher education spending has halved. Trinity’s lowest scoring metric in 2015 and 2016 has been in the faculty/student ratio, which accounts for 20% of the ranking.
Lack of funding has put pressure on every facet of Trinity’s existence, from teaching to capitated bodies like the SU to career advisory services for graduates, which was scrapped earlier this year; college administrators have had to strip the meat away as a consequence of 7 years of cuts.
Another reason why the situation is becoming so urgent is the dramatic rise in numbers of CAO applicants caused by Ireland’s growing young population: 65000 people applied through the CAO between 1997 and 2007; this year more than 80000 are applying. In other words, the problem that is currently a crisis is going to get worse. Either Irish universities become larger and face more pressure and more cutbacks, or a lower percentage of young people get a 3rd level education, and those who do get a worse one, and leave with a worse degree and lower employment prospects.
This announcement makes one thing absolutely clear: we cannot have low government spending on universities, low or moderate fees for students, and high-quality institutions all at once. One must give; and at the moment the government, by inaction and and reluctance to sail in troubled political waters, are causing Irish universities to buckle. If we want to save them, and make them better, then we need to pay for them, and fast.