Jess Casey: Serious problems looming for university sector

10/06/2020 - 06:00

By Jess Casey
The tough decisions and cuts looming will not be good for students, or Ireland, in the long-term, writes Jess Casey

Exams Group Of Students Studying Together Picture: iStock

The merits of international university rankings, and what they actually measure, can be well-debated, both for and against.  They can be a factor in students choosing to study at a certain institution, and they help to add weight to reputations and degrees internationally.

The two main organisations that rank universities internationally include QS and Times Higher Education (THE), which are published later in the year. QS measures a university's academic reputation, employer reputation, citations per faculty, the ratio of students per faculty, the international faculty ratio, and the international student ratio. 

Our rankings have been in decline in recent years, and beginning to reverse that trend, albeit incrementally, is generally a good thing. Of course, it’s impossible for any ranking to take into account the full breadth of a university’s strengths. Universities like MIT, Harvard and Oxford would still be recognised for their merits without a ranking, and the same can be said of Irish institutions.

But whether you buy into them or not, this year’s edition serves as a reminder that before the emergency budget of 2009, Ireland had two universities that featured in the top 100 internationally. Now, more than a decade later, again we are looking down the barrel of our next recession, which could be the worst one in our history.

The future of funding the third-level sector has been kicked down the road since the publication of the Cassells Report, which listed three clear suggestions on how to do so. 

Published in 2016, it said the shortfall in the sector should be made up by increasing student fees, increasing State funding, or through a mix of both. No action has been taken, and instead, it was referred to a European Commission service a number of years ago. 

Now, post-Covid, universities say they are facing an additional black hole in their funds, totaling more than €400m million due to the number of international students, who usually pay high-fees to study here, expected to dramatically decrease. 

They also face more shortfalls in their finances due to missed out commercial revenues. On top of all of this, they are also currently trying to re-package courses amidst physical distancing limitations. 

Lecturers will be delivered online, with some smaller classes and labs on-campus. Its unlikely student accommodation will bring in the same amount of revenue as it has in previous years. 

Students here are also facing their own set of problems; With no summer work, and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment to be cut for part-time workers, many will not be able to afford to return to college this year. The income threshold for SUSI is to stay the same this year, although students can seek an exception. Students who are in a position financially to return to, or begin, in September also could just decide not to this year, preferring to wait it out. 

All of this combines to create a serious, looming problem for the sector. If finances are this pressed in the coming years, there will be no room for our universities to expand or to scale up their research, and improve or even hold on to their rankings. There will be no money to give students the additional supports they will need. Instead, there will be tough decisions and cuts, none of which will be good for students, or Ireland in the long-term. 

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