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Universities Challenged – Why the Rankings Matter for Ireland

Link Blog | September 12, 2019

Ireland’s University Rankings

In the late 1960’s Donogh O’Malley, Minister for Education made second level education free up to Intermediate Cert level. In the mid 1990s Niamh Bhreathnach abolished fees for 3rd level education from the same office. Both politicians saw the merit of increasing participation in education and both acts reaped massive rewards for Ireland by creating a highly educated population. This highly trained population helped home grown entrepreneurship flourish, drove domestic business forward and also attracted multinational investment from across the world. The returns on investment in education for this country have been clear, so where do we stand in terms of our record in recent years?

One indication that all is not well comes from the position of Irish Universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The recently published rankings show that only one Irish university made the top 200 universities in the world. That University – Trinity College fell 40 places this year to 164th place. 10 years ago, Trinity was considered the 43rd best university in the world. That’s a drop of over 120 places in less than a decade and is an indicator that something needs to change in relation to investment in education here. These rankings may seem trivial to people who don’t attend and don’t intend to attend this university, but Trinity is no outlier. Almost all Irish Universities have lost significant ground since our budgetary situation worsened in 2008\2009, with the exception of NUI Galway, which has fluctuated in recent years.

The problem here is two fold. Firstly what we are offering Irish students is the prospect of paying significant money for a deteriorating service. Since education cuts were introduced, and fees returned by the back door, it seems that Irish students, and their families, are paying more for less. Secondly what we are offering international students is becoming less attractive. If international students are going to spend thousands on an education, they want a university that is well recognised. Any drop in foreign student numbers (who pay much higher fees) further starves Irish institutions of funds. However it isn’t just students who look at these rankings. Consider Foreign Direct Investment. Companies looking to invest abroad cite access to a talented pool of labour among the top 3 reasons for investing in a country, higher up the list of preferences than low corporate tax rates. If Ireland doesn’t rank with the top universities in the world our competitiveness is affected.

There is no reason why Ireland can’t compete. We have done so in the past, and our peers in small countries are able to do so now. Holland, for instance, has 7 universities in the top 200. It has been  estimated in the past that an investment of €100-160m extra per year would help to improve the offering of Irish Universities. While this isn’t peanuts, as our national finances improve we have to do what we can to make sure we are offering our people the best education possible and offering the world an attractive place to learn and invest. Of course 3rd level education isn’t the only part of the system we can improve. We should work on our primary and secondary level system to ensure a good grounding for all students and also improve our apprenticeship programmes for those who may wish to pursue a more practical higher education.

Not only does a top class education system attract investment and money, in the shape of fees, from abroad, it also leads to a healthier society which can make important decisions in an informed way. An educated population is good for families, business and democracy. We should strive all we can to increase participation rates, raise standards and be the ‘Best in Class’.

Cormac Spencer

Link Personnel Services

01 845 6312

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