Cuts may force cap on Irish (but not foreign) students

The president of one of Ireland’s leading universities has warned that the institution may have to limit the number of places available to Irish students if the government fails to improve the funding situation for universities.

But it will continue to recruit non-European Union students as its main way of funding staffing increases.

Professor Andrew Deeks, president of University College Dublin or UCD, said in a statement: “Funding cuts by government have bitten hard on the higher education sector in Ireland since the economic crash in 2008 and the recovery has yet to reach the resource-challenged universities.

“Because of the failure of the government to address the funding issue facing the sector, the only way for the university to increase the number of staff has been through using non-exchequer income raised primarily by recruiting additional non-EU students.”

He said this had directly improved UCD’s ranking under the staff-student ratio criterion in the latest QS World University Rankings, released on 8 June, but the ratio “remains unacceptably low compared with our competitor universities overseas”.

“Unless there is movement on the funding of Irish students soon, the university will have to seriously consider the option of reducing the number of places available to Irish students in order to preserve quality."

International undergraduate students generally pay €18,000 to €24,000 (US$20,100 to US$26,900) in fees while graduate-entry medical students pay up to €50,000, which helps subsidise higher education for Irish and EU students. Currently, most Irish students and students from other EU or European Economic Area countries or Switzerland pay €3,000 each towards non-tuition costs.

Frank admission

Deeks’s frank admission drew a strong response from the Union of Students in Ireland or USI, which praised Deeks for openly confirming a situation it “deplores” but has warned against “for years”.

Ireland is currently experiencing population growth and demand for Junior Cert exams – for 15- to 16-year-olds – is at a 15-year high and will translate into higher demand for university places in two years’ time.

The USI said it has warned for many years that underfunding of higher education in Ireland would result in colleges seeking to exploit students from outside the EU as a “cash crop”.

“We’ve been clear that underinvestment would lead to a reduction in places available to students from inside the EU, including Ireland, as EU students are shifted to make more room for the more lucrative students from overseas,” the statement said.

“Colleges are more than ever in the business of filling classrooms, and the rules allow non-EU students to be shaken down for much more money than EU students.”

QS ranking

Deeks was speaking just after the release of the QS ranking, in which UCD was one of three Irish universities to improve their position. The university has risen eight places to 168th, which Deeks says reflects improvements in both the academic and employer reputation surveys.

In particular, UCD’s staff-student ratio, which accounts for 20% of the overall ranking score, has risen from being outside the top 500 last year to 439th.

This is still a far cry from its highpoint in 2008 when UCD ranked 86th under the measure.

The star performer, however, was Trinity College Dublin, which has risen 10 places to 88th after nearly falling out of the top 100 last year. And NUI Galway is up six places to 243rd.

Brexit effect

QS said the improvement in scores under the employer reputation measure suggested "the increased desirability of Ireland among employers, both domestic and international, since the Brexit vote, and the consequently increased imperative to hire from Irish institutions", the Irish Independent reported.

The USI said students from overseas pay enormous fees to study in Ireland, and Brexit may well make Ireland even more attractive.

But concerns remain over the quality of teaching and research Irish universities can offer after a decade of cuts – and their ability to capitalise on the opportunity offered by the potential damage Brexit will do to the popularity of UK universities among international students.

“We are concerned by the prospect of students from overseas being exploited to alleviate the underinvestment in Ireland,” the USI said.

“As supporters of the local economy in this country, we worry that we are in danger of creating a college system that can’t afford to cater for the educational needs of Irish students, but instead effectively exports degrees.”

A report by an expert group chaired by Peter Cassells last year did not recommend a cap on places, but did present some options for increasing funds, including offering student loans to enable students to pay higher college fees.

The report said €1 billion was needed for investment in the sector over the next 15 years, both to ensure higher education can support economic and social development and to underpin increased public access to higher education. The demand for university places is expected to grow by a third by 2026.

Politicians’ wariness over raising student fees may have increased after the recent election result in the United Kingdom, where the government lost its majority, partly as a result of a large turnout of young voters, many of whom were reportedly backing Labour’s pledge to abolish university tuition fees.