Trinity could spend €29 million to recruit 263 new academic staff members over the next five years, The University Times has learned, as part of an ambitious plan to bring its staff–student ratio in line with other major European universities and arrest a series of rankings slides.
Confidential documents presented to Trinity’s College Board in November, obtained by The University Times, detail a major strategy that looks likely to be implemented as part of the College’s new strategic plan, and which College hopes will bring its staff–student ratio down from 18:1 to 16:1.
The number of EU students will not be reduced in that time, contrary to what Provost Patrick Prendergast has publicly suggested on a number of occasions in the past year, but College intends to increase the current number of non-EU students from 3,182 to 4,037 by 2025 – an increase of almost 27 per cent.
By comparison, the number of EU students is to increase by just under eight per cent by 2025, from 16,176 to 17,454 by 2025.
A presentation to Board in November, delivered by interim Chief Financial Officer Peter Reynolds, suggested a number of ways that Trinity could pay for the implementation of the strategy – including philanthropy, a new commercial strategy and an increase in non-EU students.
But Reynolds’s report cautioned that “each of these initiatives would require careful evaluation and detailed implementation plans”, adding that “support will be required across the University as a whole to deliver on these initiatives and this goal”.
Increasing the number of non-EU students will generate €4 million towards the project, while a growth in philanthropic income could bring in €5 million.
A risk assessment of the strategic plan, seen by The University Times, shows that the staff–student ratio is projected to increase to 20:1 in five years if current trends in the growth of student numbers continue. The total number of students is expected to increase from 19,358 to 21,491 in that time.
The risk assessment, presented to Board at its November meeting, also cites a number of risks that could prevent the achievement of a lower ratio by 2025. Potential roadblocks include “economic uncertainty” surrounding Brexit, “overdependence on philanthropy” and a lack of funding from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and elsewhere.
Brexit, the plan states, could thwart the ratio’s reduction if it results in “extra international demand for education in what will be the only English-speaking EU country”. Furthermore, the departure of the UK from the EU could result in “constraints within schools or pressure from the State to maintain/grow numbers (national demographics and potential non-EU growth due to Brexit)”.
The University Times obtained a copy of Trinity’s strategic plan, which was approved in November. Requests for an interview with Provost Patrick Prendergast were declined because the plan has not yet been officially launched.
Beyond Brexit, the “Hong Kong situation” and the impeachment of US president Donald Trump were listed in the plan as barriers to “global mobility” that could prevent Trinity from achieving its projected 36 per cent non-domestic student population.
The plan also cites “reputational damage” as a risk factor in reducing the staff-student ratio – a “risk that reducing student numbers will cause reputational damage due to poor publicity where these efforts are construed as contributing to a reduction in skill sets in the context of the wider Irish strategy for development of the knowledge economy”.
Reputational damage could also arise from “demand from fee-paying non-domestic students for cutting edge technological and teaching innovation”, as well as “reputational impact of social media demands not satisfied”.
The “Dublin accommodation crisis”, the plan says, may also result in “demand for student beds outstripping supply”.
Faculty-to-student ratio is one of six factors that determine an institution’s place on the QS World University Rankings. Trinity has fallen 20 places in the QS rankings over the past two years, falling outside the top 100 for the first time in 2018.
Provost Patrick Prendergast has publicly stated several times this year that reducing the College’s staff-student ratio by reducing student numbers may be necessary to reverse this trend.
In September, Prendergast said in an interview with the Sunday Business Post that Trinity had been discussing whether it needed to reduce the current number of students, which has more than doubled from around 8,000 in the 1980s.
“We have to ask ourselves now, what are we going to do?”, he said. “Are we going to shave back student numbers? If we do, then we will reduce our staff-student ratio and that will help us in providing the high-quality education and the rankings.”
Speaking last October on the Seán O’Rourke show on RTÉ Radio 1, Prendergast repeated the claim that College was considering reducing the number of students it admits by five per cent per year for the next five years.
Trinity’s staff–student ratio, he said, is much poorer than the UK average of 14 students per teacher, after a rapid increase in the number of students attending third-level in Ireland.
The best universities, he told O’Rourke, have a ratio of around 10:1.
In his final “state of the College” address in 2018, Prendergast dismissed the rankings as “reductive”. He said they exclude from consideration “the societal engagement, the critical questing creativity, that we take for granted”. Trinity was ranked 67th in the world when Prendergast took up his position.
After falling 44 places to 164th in the Times Higher Education Rankings last year, Trinity called for a national strategy to tackle funding issues in higher education.
In a video posted on Twitter the day after the rankings were published, Trinity’s dean of research Prof Linda Doyle said: “When we look at the numbers behind the rankings, what we see is a very steady performance. The challenge for us is that other universities around the world are improving and passing us by.”
“We can also see that national initiatives focusing on excellence are underpinning these improvements”, she said.
Doyle added that Trinity being the number one ranked university in the country was “not good enough in a globally competitive world” and that Trinity can do better “if there is sustained, long term investment in the third-level sector in Ireland”.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has said that the overall decline of Ireland’s universities in the rankings was a result of the government’s “Scrooge-like” approach to higher education funding.
In a press statement released in June last year, Joan Donegan, the general secretary of IFUT, said the government is “continually refusing to address a decade of funding neglect of higher education”.
Referring to the faculty-to-student ratio aspect of the rankings, she said that more funding would “provide tens of thousands of additional school-leavers each year with a fit-for-purpose higher education system and acknowledge the commitment of overstretched lecturers in overcrowded lecture halls”.