University presidents have warned an urgent political decision must be made on how to provide the €1bn extra annual funding needed in higher education to protect the country’s future.
Another slide for Irish universities in the latest world rankings out today shows that, while four remain in the top 300, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has barely stayed in the top 100 and University College Dublin (UCD) is down 22 places to 176th.
Other than NUI Galway, the only one to make gains in the 2016 QS World University Rankings, all Irish universities have fallen substantially since 2009 due largely to funding and staff cuts.
In an unprecedented statement, the presidents of TCD and UCD are calling for the Government and opposition parties to implement the Cassells report. Published by Education Minister Richard Bruton in July, it said an extra €600m a year must be spent on higher education by 2021, rising to €1bn by 2030.
The sector has seen annual State funding cut by one third from €1.4bn to €923m since 2008, and academic staff fall from over 9,000 to below 8,000. In the same period, third-level student numbers have increased by nearly 40,000 to over 190,000.
However, no Government decision on how the funding gap should be bridged will be made until the Cassells report is debated by the Oireachtas Education Committee this autumn.
Crucially, Fianna Fáil has not ruled out support for the option to introduce a ‘study now, pay later’ student loan scheme believed to be favoured in civil service and Government circles.
TCD provost Patrick Prendergast and UCD president Andrew Deeks said the political system must now make the difficult choices needed to improve higher education funding and how it 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,” they said.
“The future of the country depends on it.”
A Department of Education spokesperson said the Cassells report is a massive first step to finding a new funding model. However, with the political climate meaning a minority government is unlikely to get any controversial policy past the Dáil, broad consensus is being sought first.
“The minister wants the Oireachtas education committee to consider this report as early as possible in the coming Dáil term,” he said.
Michael Murphy, president of University College Cork, which dropped 50 places to 283rd, said the country no longer has the luxury to postpone political decisions on bridging the funding shortfall to the sector.
“The genie is out of the bottle, despite our efforts to put a brave face on it. The realities are now coming out in repeated ranking outcomes,” said Dr Murphy.
UCC was 181st in the QS rankings in 2011 but Dr Murphy said the loss of 12% of senior science and medical academics has had a big impact because of the importance attached in rankings to research.
In addition, he said, UCC’s ratio of students to academics has jumped from 18.5 to 23:1 in his 10-year term, compared to the 14-to-16 range at the world’s leading universities.
Even if consensus were reached on a long-term funding model, it is unclear what, if anything, will be done in next year’s budget.
A student loan scheme similar to that employed in Britain or Australia would be strongly opposed by the Union of Students in Ireland, whose budget submission will today call for an immediate cut of at least €500 to the €3,000 undergraduate fee.
It also seeks a start to the increased State investment it says should be made instead of expecting students to pay, with an extra €140m for the sector in 2017.
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