Business and union concern over universities

By Niall Murray

Employers and unions have added their voices to calls for an urgent Government response to the higher education funding crisis that sees universities continue their slide on international rankings this week.

The Irish Universities Association warned the latest QS World University Rankings, in which Trinity College Dublin’s drop from the top 100 is one of six declines for eight Irish colleges, is evidence of the effect of years of funding cuts and Government-imposed staffing restrictions.

Only University of Limerick and Maynooth University maintained their positions, as significant investment in higher education in Asia and other regions sees their position improve.

While the Department of Education cautions that the rankings do not consider the quality of teaching and learning, business group Ibec said the QS rankings falls are a direct result of “dire underinvestment” in higher education over the last decade.

“The lack of investment does not match or support the national ambitions to be a global education and innovation leader,” said Ibec education policy senior executive, Claire McGee.

She repeated the organisation’s calls for implementation of the OECD’s 2004 recommendations for more balanced funding streams and income-contingent student loans. 

This was one of the options to bridge a the sector’s funding shortfall — headed for €600m by 2020 — in the 2016 report of an expert group on higher education funding chaired by Peter Cassells, whose recommendations Ms McGee also urged must be expedited.

“Ireland’s return to economic growth and success is underpinned by highly talented and educated people. It is imperative that we invest in our universities and institutes,” Ms McGee said.

These rankings damage Ireland’s reputation to attract and embed foreign direct investment to create more high quality and technology jobs.

Siptu education organiser Karl Byrne said that while rankings may over-emphasise research output to the detriment of other factors, the trend is undeniable and highlights a crisis in third-level education. 

“Years of under-investment and reduced staffing has taken its toll on the entire third-level sector. The entire sector is rife with precarious employment and this has made it virtually impossible for works to aspire to a decent career,” Mr Byrne said.

The additional €100m being invested by Education Minister Richard Bruton this year and in 2017 marks the first rise in investment since the recession began. 

In the meantime, student numbers have increased by around one-third.

He has asked the Oireachtas education committee to make recommendations based on the Cassells report, but the committee wants his department to provide an economic analysis of the different options before making its own conclusions.

Labour Party education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Riordáin said the continuing falls of Irish universities in international rankings is a damning indictment of a lack of investment.

“We hear the minister for education repeat ad-nauseum that he wants to create the best education and training system in Europe, however precarious work is rife in our universities, student-teacher ratios are rapidly increasing and there is a huge problem with under-investment,” he said.

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