Trinity College Dublin is considering massively decreasing its number of Irish students over the next five years, as reported by The Irish Times.
This is one of the options being weighed up as part of the university's next five-year strategic plan, so that it can help guarantee its educational standard. Concern has increased about the college's educational reputation following a drop of about 40 places in the latest Times Higher Education Rankings. Despite still being the highest placed third level institution in Ireland, its latest ranking, of 169th in the world, represented a worrying drop to members of the college's board.
Dr. Patrick Prendergast, the Provost of Trinity College, stated that the magnitude of this drop was largely as a result of poor lecturer-to-student ratios. Trinity currently has around one lecturer for every 18 students, with UK universities having an average of one lecturer per 14 students, with that increasing to around one lecturer for every 10 student in the more elite UK universities.
Speaking on today's Sean O'Rourke show, he explained that, despite it being reported that universities are set to be allocated more funding in the upcoming budget, much of this will be hoovered up by administrative fees and in paying salaries that are tied to the public sector pay-scale. As such there is very little available funding for proactive expansion of universities and for recruitment.
He presented the solution to this as a simple mathematical equation. In the absence of additional revenue through funding, in order to achieve a more balanced lecturer-to-student ratio, they must either hire more staff, or lower student numbers. He ruled out the former option due to the current difficulties in attaining additional government funding, saying that their only option was to lower student numbers.
Specifically, he said that Trinity College is weighing up the possibility of restricting the number of Irish students enrolling, year on year, for the next five years. The goal would be to reduce overall numbers of Irish students attending the university by some 3,400. With the Irish student body at present standing at around 14,400, this would represent a near 25% reduction in the number of Irish students.
Dr. Prendergast clarified that, were the college to take this course of action, they would exclusively be seeking to reduce the number of Irish students within the university so that they maintain the number of international students they have enrolled. This would arguably represent a terrible decision for Ireland's educational system at large.
It is undeniable that Irish universities have been suffering from reductions in funding - with the average level of funding received from the government, per student, falling from about €9,000 to €5,000 in the last decade. As such, universities have had to look to alternative revenue streams to subsidise their incomes. Trinity have perhaps been the most adept at this, instigating a - much lambasted - re-branding initiative in 2014 to help garner more international recognition and attract more international students. They have subsequently managed to expand their commercial revenue streams such that they have approximately doubled their gross annual revenue from commercial enterprises, pulling in some €50 million last year, versus €27 million five years previously.
While this dynamism can to a certain extent be applauded, as it ostensibly is in service of making up for the shortfall in governmental funding, it does inculcate a dangerous mentality. When the very viability of a university is threatened by financial insecurity it encourages a prioritisation of securing revenue streams above all else. It can lead to the board regarding the university as, not a service provider, but a business that answers first to profit margins and its own economic survival rather than the welfare of its student populace.
This thinking could not be more evident than in this supposed 'solution' suggested by Patrick Prendergast. Reducing the number of students will result in creating a student-teacher ratio that proves itself more amenable to having the college ranked favourably - but it will also result in some 3,400 fewer students availing of third level education. What's more, restricting student numbers will cause CAO point requisites to soar across the board, further restricting access to Trinity, which has fought hard to shake off its status as an isolated bastion of privilege.
The fact that revenue streams have come to be prioritised over student experience can be seen by the fact that they are merely looking to restrict the number of Irish students entering the university, and not international students. This is simply an economic decision. International students are worth far more to the college, per year, than EU-based students. Subsidised EU tuition costs require students to pay a flat fee of €3,000 per year. This, combined with governmental funding averaging around €5,000 per student, roughly takes the value of each undergraduate student, to the university, to some €8,000 per year. International students, who have to pay annual fees without subsidy, are worth anything between €17,500 to €46,350 per year to the university.
Add to this the fact that international students enrolling in the university will require accommodation, and will typically seek to access it through the university, and there is a near surety placed on annual accommodation revenue for the college. As such, they present a far greater potential revenue stream to the university than Irish and EU students, and it would be further evidence that - were this policy adopted - the focus of the college is shifting more and more toward international students due to economic necessity caused by a paucity of funding.
Patrick Prendergast was at pains to stress that a reduction in the number of Irish students will not lead to those places being filled by international students. However, under these measures the proportion of international students to Irish students will massively increase. This exhibits the fact that they are increasingly regarding students purely in terms of their revenue potential, rather than their innate worth as people entitled to education.
Hopefully the announcement that this plan is being considered will spur the government to allocate universities more funding, to prevent this coming to pass. To ensure that universities need not be so concerned with their own financial survival and can instead return to fulfilling their remit; education.
H/T: The Irish Times