Trinity’s slump in the QS rankings belies a crisis in funding for Irish third-level institutions. The return to form for Ireland’s universities in their fall down the league tables indicates their incapacity to keep the pace with international competitors and the absolute necessity of increased funding from the Irish state.
Most importantly, funding pressures have already materialised in the unhappy state of affairs inside Trinity. Students have rallied against the unfair distribution of both spending and cuts in Trinity. The slip in prestige is symptomatic of Trinity’s inability to empathise with it’s own students.
Trinity already suffers the effects of chronic underfunding. The College Board’s attempt at a draconian reform of supplemental exam fees hinted at the perilous state of university finances. A flat rate of €450 to take supplemental exams stands as such an unrealistic and cruel proposal that it seemed likelier to be an initial bargaining position with TCDSU than a serious policy.
Its abandonment after the fierce response of students under the aegis of Take Back Trinity (TBT) instead betrays its total sincerity. The College Board seems so financially pressured and ill disposed towards students that it tried to implement the most unaffordable and exploitative supplemental exam fee scheme in Ireland.
Underfunding has also initiated a breakdown in trust between College authorities and students. While TBT’s occupation of the Dining Hall marks the current height of this decline, such extreme action follows years of disillusionment with academic and student support services at Trinity. The litany of complaints against Trinity’s ailing bureaucracy highlight student dissatisfaction with its host of mismanaged and underfunded services.
Trinity’s drop in the QS rankings simply reflects a university in decline due to underfunding and a neglect of the needs of all its students. Third-level education is a globally competitive business in which Trinity’s traditional competitors have raced ahead in funding. Trinity seems unable to recognise that a well-regarded university is not solely defined by the size of its business school.
Major UK universities, like Edinburgh and Manchester, benefit from endowment funds that dwarf Trinity’s by up to hundreds of millions of euros. With ordinary tuition fees in the UK also triple those found in Ireland, British universities command a substantially higher revenue than Trinity.
Combined with the rise of universities from outside Europe and North America, Trinity seems financially unable to sustain competition with the world’s elite universities. What it does with the funding it receives illustrates further its inability to garner the support of students.
Underfunding and mismanagement has already eroded Trinity’s internal efficiency and is now undermining its international competitiveness.
While university ranking systems like the QS guide are flawed devices, they are important. In a globalised and multilingual world, employers and policymakers must rely more on objective indicators like rankings than any knowledge of the traditional reputation of universities.
Immigration systems in several countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, already award extra points to graduates from universities ranked highly in the QS and Times Higher Education guides. Similarly, the Brazilian government chose the partner universities for its “Science Without Borders” STEM scholarship programme based on their rankings in international league tables.
Comments like those of Joan Donegan, General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), that are ‘sceptical…of the value of such rankings’ are negligent. While rankings are a new and imperfect system, their importance is only continuing to grow for university competitiveness.
Trinity’s future requires a more stable position in international league tables. The problems behind its fall, like its reduced student-to-faculty ratio, and internal bureaucratic problems, largely descend from underfunding, though they are compounded by the neglectful approach to student satisfaction of many within the bureaucracy.
This is a governmental and attitudinal problem. The sustainability of internationally competitive universities like Trinity demands greater investment from the Irish state. In that cause, College authorities should follow the actions of student groups and protest the underlying cause of the decline in Trinity’s status: governmental underfunding.
Along with the call for funding, a serious reconsideration of the priorities Trinity has needs to be undertaken. What actually happens with the funding needs to be in the interests of all students. Students must no longer feel neglected by this “elite” institution.