Only this month, a slight slip in world rankings by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin (even though the QS rankings in question were based on a set of criteria not used before) were cited by TCD provost Dr John Hegarty as evidence of the effects of trying to cater for more students with less money.
These arguments are justifiable and understandable when government policy aims to increase the proportion of school-leavers attaining higher education, something which will require an estimated €500 million in additional funding a year. At the same time, government funding to third level colleges will be down 20% this year compared to 2008, when pay and staffing reductions are factored in, wiping out most of a 31% increase in the six years up to that.
So for taxpayers and lower and middle-ranking university staff, as well as students, to hear this week how many of their bosses were being paid bonuses over and above those allowed must surely be a source of anger and frustration.
University College Dublin (UCD) has been singled out for specific mention in media reports for making unauthorised payments, most notably to president Dr Hugh Brady, who received more than €150,000 above his approved remuneration from 2004 to 2007. Others were paid €21,000 to €47,000 more than sanctioned in 2007 alone.
The issue was not confined to the Belfield campus. University College Cork (UCC), National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and University of Limerick (UL) were all found in a report of Comptroller & Auditor General John Buckley to have made various unauthorised payments to senior staff, mostly up to 2007 but into 2008 in some cases.
The contention of the university presidents is they have autonomy to pay what salaries or bonuses they see fit, but the HEA made it clear to the PAC this week this is not the case and they had been told as far back as 2001 any extra pay can only be sanctioned by the minister.
Wherever the truth lies, these payments of several million euro were clearly questionable. But more importantly, they raise questions for the wider community about the willingness of university leaders to toe the line on public service pay.
Most third level colleges fear further cuts to their €1.9 billion pay and services funding next year in the order of 10%, while at least another 2% cut in staff numbers is expected to be ordered on top of the 6% already achieved across the higher education sector.
The likely impact will be further reductions in the quality and level of service.
The forthcoming report of the higher education strategy review group, chaired by economist Colin Hunt, will set out a vision for our universities and institutes of technology for the next 20 years. Third level bosses will have argued for continuation of the autonomies they already enjoy under existing laws, but which have been somewhat restricted by a recruitment embargo which allows them fill just a limited number of academic vacancies, subject to departments of education and finance approval.
But with the hands of agencies like the HEA more or less tied there should be no surprise if the Hunt report does not recommend tighter regulation.
Unfortunately, if that is the case, then those who seek to maintain their financial autonomy to best suit the needs of their students and the quality of their education may only have themselves to blame for flouting rules on pay scales that most people could only dream about.
That behaviour will be a bitter pill for any students and their families who will very likely face the prospect of paying for their degrees in a few years’ time.