University Rankings: A broken promise to Irish Students?

DEPUTY EDITOR OF CURRENT AFFAIRS FIONA HUGHES DISCUSSES THE RECENT FALL OF IRISH UNIVERSITIES IN THE WORLD RANKINGS AND OUTLINES THE EFFECT ON STUDENTS

“It is hard to imagine that the quality of education and the opportunities received from it would not reflect the work put in by us as students. However, that is looking more and more realistic.”

“In the most recent rankings released by QS, we have fallen 50 places in a year.”

The Leaving Certificate is hard. Many remember late nights, tears and weekly nervous breakdowns. This suffering should earn you a high quality third level education, an education that provides a wealth of opportunities and reflects the ideals of Ireland as the Isle of Saints and Scholars. However, it seems more and more as each year passes that this is not the case.

A Stark Reality

From 2010 to 2012, University College Cork was ranked by the QS University World Rankings as one of the top 200 Universities in the world. In the most recent rankings released by QS, the university has fallen 50 places in a year. UCC now occupies 283rd place, which is the most significant decline of any Irish University. This set back is not specific to UCC. In the Times University Rankings, no Irish University had a place in the top 200 for the first time since its conception. In the QS World Rankings UCD and Trinity both fell at least 20 places, leaving TCD in 98th place, just barely hanging on as the only Irish University in the top 100.

The Implications

Phil Baty, editor of The Times Higher Education Rankings, describes this as “bad news for Ireland.”  But how bad is bad? Each World Ranking system is different. They each give an insight into areas within the university that are in a state of decline (or incline if the University is so lucky). The methodology used by each ranking system puts emphasis on different aspects of each university. The QS world rankings give research 50% significance when calculating the rankings. Within this, the highest significance is given to academic reputation. This category is given 40% of the overall consideration. It is based on a survey sent out to 74,651 academics around the globe. They were asked to identify the institutions where they believe the best work is currently taking place within their own field of expertise. Academics may not be well positioned to comment on teaching standards at other institutions, but it is clearly well within their remit to have a view on where the most significant research is currently taking place within their field. The remaining 10% is then given to citations per faculty. In the QS World Rankings, the only category that concerns itself with the teaching quality of a University is its measurement of student-to-teacher ratio. In the absence of an international standard by which to measure teaching quality, it provides an insight into which universities are well equipped to provide small class sizes and a good degree of individual supervision. Only 10% is given to this category. Meanwhile in the Times Higher Education Rankings, teaching is given a significance of 30%. QS World University Rankings also dedicate 10% of their research to Employer Reputation. It is unique in this dedication. Just as with Academic, a global survey was sent out to 37,781 graduate employers to identify the universities that in their view produce the best graduates. Looking not just at the employability of graduates, but also at the implications for the availability of jobs in Ireland, things do not look good. Ibec CEO Danny McCoy warns that: “Ireland’s highly skilled labour force has played a key role in our economic success… [t]he continuing decline of Irish universities in the global rankings will damage our reputation with international investors.” Micheál Martin is of the same opinion. “If you look back over 40 years in this country, consistent investment in education was the key to the modernisation of our country, and to the success of inward investment into the country,” he said. “You talk to people across any of the major multinationals who came in here, apart from taxation and other issues, talent and opportunity was the key.”From this analysis of the rankings, it can be seen that the implications of our decline fall not within the quality of education but within the research being done and the way others, such as employers and investors, perceive our universities.

Who is at Fault?

Ireland is 29th out of 32 OECD countries in terms of its third level expenditure. Since the economic crisis, state funding for Third Level Education has dropped from 84% to 64%. IFUT believes the University status is being brought to breaking point following these financial cutbacks and staffing cuts, combined with rapidly increasing student numbers. Ben Sowter, head of Research at QS, also believes this to be the reason. “This year’s rankings imply that levels of investment are determining who progresses and who regresses… Institutions in countries that provide high levels of targeted funding… Are rising,” he said. “While recognising Ireland’s difficulties in recovering from the economic shock of the previous decade, the effect of seven years of higher education cuts are laid bare by this year’s rankings.”

Time for change

There are 9,443 universities in 206 countries in the world. Looking at this, all of ours sit comfortably in the top 10%. However, this is not just about the position of our Universities in these world rankings. It is about the position of our universities in the rankings to come. This trend of decline has been ongoing for many years now, since the cutbacks during the recession. This is without the additional pressures the future is expected to bring as the 80,000 students who applied to the CAO this year is said to increase by 28% to 102,000 by the year 2028. Consequently, Colleges will need an extra €2.875 billion per year to compete internationally. The Cassells Report, released during the summer, outlined three options for third level funding. These included an increase in government spending and introducing a free fees method of payment, an increase in government spending while maintaining the current payment system and an income loans contingent system. These findings were then given to the education board, a cross party committee, to make their decision on how to deal with the funding crisis. We in Ireland expect a high quality of education. We grow up knowing that we are the lucky few to be educated in the land of the saints and scholars, that not only will a high emphasis always be put on education, but those providing it will always search for excellence. It is hard to imagine that the quality of education and the opportunities received from it would not reflect the work put in by us as students. However, that is looking more and more realistic. During the recession, third level education was put on hold. It is now time to prioritise it. To keep their promise of high quality education is to allow us to reach our goals and to rescue the idea that Ireland as the Isle of Saints and Scholars.