The battle to rise up the ranks
Are world university rankings good for the prestige of third-level institutions or simply a PR exercise
Irish universities put in good performances on the global front in the recently published THES-QS World University Rankings. Some colleges rose more than 100 places in the space of a year, and one narrowly failed to make the top 50. On the face of it this was a good result for a small island but just how important are such lists?
Eight of Ireland’s third-level institutions featured in the fourth annual ranking of the world’s top 500 universities.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) climbed to 53rd from 78th last year, following a concerted campaign by the college to hit the top 50.
John Hegarty, the provost of TCD, said he was surprised to have come so close to the target, believing it would take a few more years to get there. Hegarty insists, though, that the push towards the top has not had any detrimental effect on undergraduate learning. He said student-staff ratios at TCD ensure that all undergraduate students benefit from one-to-one support from lecturers and tutors while studying.
“The campaign had several fronts,” Hegarty said. “We employ the best minds in the world to educate our students, while simultaneously advancing knowledge. Research and education are two sides of the same coin. If there is excellence in research, there is excellence in education and learning”. He added: “People are taking these lists very seriously. We live in a competitive world, and we need to be pushing all the time.
Hugh Brady, the president of University College Dublin (UCD), said university league tables are a reality but shouldn’t be the driving force behind the way colleges operate. He said that UCD had just passed through a period of intense change that was challenging for all concerned, and that its ranking of 177th was extremely “gratifying”.
Describing it as a “great boost”. Brady said high rankings greatly improve a college’s chances of recruiting students from overseas, but admitted that there was a “natural tension” between undergraduate learning and so-called fourth-level university activity, the commercialisation of research work. “It’s something we have have to watch very carefully,” he conceded.
Dublin City University (DCU) saw its ranking rise by 141 places to 300th, the biggest improvement by any college. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the president of DCU, said staff were pleasantly surprised by their performance, and the college hopes for an equally significant jump next year.
“DCU has given extra weight to research funding in the last couple of years and that is reflected in this year’s rankings. We jumped far more than we had expected to,” von Prondzynski said.
He said international league tables are useful when trying to secure foreign investment for research projects. But he warned
that significant increases in government funding are needed. “We’ve been very good at providing high-quality education at a low cost base, but there are limits to that. Unless there is a serious reappraisal of core funding, the quality of undergraduate learning will start to suffer.”
Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) saw its position improve too, moving from 370th to 351st. But Frank McMahon, DIT’s director of academic affairs, said the college had little control over the outcome. “More than half of the allocated marks are given by peer review and by recruiter review. All we can do is our best and hope we will be reviewed positively,” he said. “It’s heartening to see that we are well-received, though, and it certainly has an impact on our attractiveness to both students and staff.”
DIT began to widen its research remit about five years ago in a bid to attract international students. It hopes they will soon account for 10% of its numbers. McMahon acknowledged that foreign students represent a cash injection into the college, through their fees, but added that they also enrich college life. “International students add diversity to the learning environment,” he continued, “and can share their wealth of knowledge from their own systems.”
The Department of Education said it did not “generally comment on the compilation of league tables for schools or other educational institutions”, but added that it had made a “massive investment” across the third-level sector in the past 10 years.
The department said that ¤13 billion will be invested over the next six years to cover day-to-day funding of colleges, and that recurring departmental funding of third-level research stands at ¤94m. “Continuing to improve third-level education and developing ‘fourth-level Ireland’ is central to building a better economy and society,” the department said.
But Sean Barrett, senior lecturer in economics at TCD, said university league tables are little more than an exercise in public relations and said the move to increase the number of overseas students is set to deprive Irish students of college places.
“They are closing doors on Irish 18-year-olds, by selling places to foreign students,” he said. “They are actively excluding the sons and daughters of the taxpayers who pay their wages. Somebody should tell them to step back into the lecture hall.”
Why 4/10 is a great score for Britain's universities
Cambridge and Oxford are the second best universities in the world according to the latest rankings, and British universities are closing the gap with those in the United States.
Oxford and Cambridge share the number two spot with Yale, with Harvard ranked number one in the latest league tables from The Times Higher Education Supplement.
The findings will bring cheer to the higher education sector in Britain at a time of growing concern among vice-chancellors and employers that British universities will lose students to better-financed institutions abroad and that business will then follow them with jobs and investment.
They are also likely to add to pressure from vice-chancellors for a rise in the £3,000 annual tuition fee cap at British universities to ensure that they have sufficient funding to compete on the world stage effectively John Hood, the vice-chancellor of Oxford, said that the success of the university in the rankings – Oxford had moved up – had been achieved “despite the fact that its resources are considerably more limited than its international counterparts, particularly in the US”.
Wendy Piatt, the director-general of the Russell Group of elite research-led universities, said: “We recognise that our universities must continue to rise to the challenges of increasing global competition and increasing investment by other countries in their universities if we are to retain our status as truly world-class institutions.”
Professor Rick Trainor, the president of Universities UK, representing vice-chancellors, added: “Our competitors are increasingly marketing themselves more aggressively so it is vital that the UK remains among the foremost destinations for international students and staff.”
Britain now has four universities rated among the top ten in the list of the best 100, according to the rankings.
University College London rose from 25th position last year to ninth in the table, entering the top ten for the first time and rising farther than any other major institution. Imperial College, London also improved its standing this year, rising from ninth place to fifth.
Harvard, whose endowment of $35 billion (£16.6 billion) is roughly equal to the combined annual funding for all English universities, tops the table, but its lead over its closest rivals has fallen from 3.2 to 2.4 points. Nunzio Quacquarelli, the managing director of QS, the careers and education group that compiled the rankings, said: “In an environment of increasing student mobility, the UK is putting itself forward as a top choice for students worldwide.
“They are taking a closer look at the quality of faculty, international diversity and, of course, to the education they will receive.”
The rankings are based on a survey of academics and companies employing graduates, international student and staff numbers and research citations. The factors were weighted and transformed into a scale giving the top university 100 points and ranking the others as a proportion of that score.
The presence of so many American and British universities at the top of the rankings reflects the dominance of English as the world language for academic publishing.
1 Harvard University US
2 University of Cambridge UK
2 University of Oxford UK
2 Yale University US
5 Imperial College, London UK
6 Princeton University US
7 California Institute of Technology (Caltech) US
7 University of Chicago US
9 University College London (UCL) UK
10 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) US