There are 9,443 universities in 206 countries. All of ours are comfortably in the top 10%, writes Fergus Finlay.

A NUMBER of years ago, I conducted a series of mock interviews. The interviewees were all girls preparing for their Leaving Certs, and the purpose was to prepare them for the world outside. They all had a CAO points target. Except one girl.

“I don’t want to go to university,” she told us. “I’ve never wanted to go to university. I want to be a beautician, and I’m hoping you can help me to go about it.” As she gazed at us expectantly, we were all stumped.

We hadn’t a clue how to answer her question. This was a good school — non-fee paying, mixed catchment area — that had been working hard at pushing up both the academic attainment and expectations of its students. One of our boasts was that 90% of our students in the previous few years had gotten their first choice on their CAO application.

So what were we to do with a student who had no interest in CAO points? I can still feel my mortification at the question I asked her: “would you not consider doing a degree before you become a beautician?”

I have thought of her, and the fatuous question I asked her, a number of times over the last week or so. Every time I heard the bleating and the special pleading from representatives of third-level education, I hoped that girl had ignored all the well-meaning advice we gave her. If she did, I hope she’s the happiest beautician in Ireland.

You probably heard all the stuff, too. There were provosts of this and deans of that, all crying on radio about the standing of Irish universities.

The smart money says there is no university funding crisis in Ireland

And the language they were using was apocalyptic. We’re staring into the abyss. We’re at the edge of a cliff. This is a major national crisis, which the Government must address immediately.

The crisis, apparently, is the funding of third-level education, and the motivation for all this outpouring of grief was the publication of a list of top universities in the world.

Ireland, it seems, isn’t in the top 100. In fact, the highest-placed university in the country, Trinity College, is a mere 160th in the list. Others are further down. UCD is 176th, NUIG is in the top 300, Maynooth and Cork in the top 400, DCU in the top 500, Limerick in the top 600, and poor old DIT in the top 800.

The reason for this, according to all the learned gentlemen I heard interviewed, is that we don’t give them enough money. We need to hugely increase the investment in third-level education. The preferred method is to squeeze as much as possible out of students and their families.

That would have two great advantages: firstly, more money in the coffers; and, secondly, universities would be able to spend it at their own discretion. They wouldn’t be beholden to lousy governments that want to spend the money on sick people and the like.

Now, of course, we do need to increase investment in education, as fast as we can. And, of course, there’s a huge pay-off for all of us in doing that. But that applies to every level of education.

We mightn’t be in the top-100 list of universities, but we’re near the bottom of most league tables for pre-school education. According to the latest OECD ‘Education at a Glance’ report (it uses US dollars for comparison purposes), we spend 8,002 per student at primary level, 10,840 at second-level, and 13,663 at third-level.

That’s roughly the average across both the OECD and the EU. It is absolutely true that investment in higher education in Ireland has suffered because of the recession, perhaps more than the other sectors, and there is some catching-up to be done.

The smart money says there is no university funding crisis in Ireland

But the abyss? A national crisis? Before you buy that you’d need to ask a few questions about Ireland’s standing in this world-wide list of universities.

And maybe — just maybe — you might like to wonder a bit about whether the only problem is funding, or if there is a need for more reform.

But, above all, I think there might be a need to cool our jets about the importance of lists like these. Sweden, for example, spends nearly twice as much as we do per student on third-level education. It has two universities in the top 100, but all the rest are on a par with Ireland’s. And the criteria used in establishing the list are subjective — international outlook, for example, is one of the key ones. Looking at the list, it’s clear that if you’ve always had a famous name you’re always going to be high up.

But there are still a couple of questions I’d like to ask. Lino Guzzella is the head of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, which is ninth on the list — a position for which any Irish university would give its eye teeth.

In an interview published alongside the list, he emphasises the institute’s commitment to students — and its disdain for management bureaucracy.

“There’s me, the department heads, who oversee 30 to 40 faculty members, the professors, and that’s it,” he’s quoted as saying. “We have no schools, no provost or vice-provost for this or that. I have four colleagues on the board of directors — they have academic and administrative responsibilities.”

You’d wonder how much further the money would go if Irish universities adopted a similar model — but my observation suggests they’re going in the opposite direction.

One of the features of this approach has been top-heavy structures. I know several young academics who have had to leave teaching, because of their ‘yellow pack’ contracts, and they will frequently point to the disparity between their positions and the rather comfortable places occupied by longer-term tenured lecturers, professors, and administrators.

The smart money says there is no university funding crisis in Ireland

According to one list I came across, there are 9,443 universities in 206 countries. All of ours are comfortably in the top 10% of that number.

So the special pleading about a crisis isn’t warranted. After all, on a per-capita basis, and as a proportion of our national wealth, we give Trinity College and the University of Limerick more or less the same funding each year.

If there is a difference of 400 places on the list between those universities, that has nothing to do with the State.

It mightn’t be a fair comparison, because they are both places of which to be proud, but it can surely be argued that using lists like these to beat the Government over the head isn’t entirely fair, either. Instead, perhaps, some sober reflection about differences between best and worst — or, to be fair, between higher- and lower-ranked — might be in order.

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