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Irish universities’ rankings slide due to lack of funds – Oxford head

Prof Louise Richardson says funding crucial in a university's performance. Pic: University of Oxford.

Oxford University vice-chancellor Professor Louise Richardson believes a decline in education investment is to blame for Irish universities’ flagging performance on global rankings charts, the Irish Times reports.

The question as to who should pay for tertiary education is one that societies must resolve, according to Richardson, who also says free tuition is an ideal that every society should aim for.

“Universities require investment and I think that’s the reason for the decline in the rankings, quite clearly,” Richardson said ahead of the annual Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland dinner in Dublin on Saturday night.

The former vice-chancellor of Scotland’s University of St Andrews adds the decline was especially evident during the economic downturn.

Richardson graduated with an MA and PhD in government from Harvard University and also has an MA in political science from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But it was in Trinity College Dublin that the Oxford head started her third-level education and where she received her Bachelor of Arts in history.

When asked about Trinity’s current position in international rankings, Richardson expressed her sadness over her alma mater’s performance.

“Well, of course, yes. I feel enormously indebted to Trinity. I still think it’s a terrific university and I think Ireland has several really good universities. But they really have suffered from underinvestment in recent years.”

Last year, all except one Irish university fell in terms of their positions in the QS World University Rankings, a result that student groups say was caused by huge cuts in state funding as well as falling staff numbers to cope with the growth in the number of students. Its highest ranked university was Trinity, which barely made it into the world’s top 100 last year after years of steady decline from the top 50 since 2008.

Society’s obligation

In order to get world-class universities, the Oxford head called for each society to solve the difficult question of who should pay university fees.

“Free university education is an ideal towards which every society should strive, but it is an extraordinary luxury and very expensive,” Richardson said.

Giving the example of Scotland, which provides free tuition to its citizens, Richardon said the country’s practice makes its middle-class put in a huge subsidy to sponsor its youth’s tertiary education. Yet, despite so, the number of youth from less well-off families attending university have not increased.

Similarly in Ireland, poorer Irish pupils are less likely to attend university, unlike their wealthier peers, a situation that Richardson says is uniform in Scotland, England, as well as Ireland.

“I think we as societies have an obligation to address that.”

Her solution comes in the form of sharing the financial burden of tertiary education between individual beneficiaries and governments, as well as more private philanthropy.

“The question that politicians run away from because it is so difficult is … what is that fair distribution? And I think that can alter depending on the economics of the country.

“But we have to have that conversation or you’re not going to be able to have world-ranking universities.”

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