The QS and Times Higher Education rankings are not necessarily a reliable indicator of university’s quality, writes Professor Danielle Clarke.

A new academic year is inevitably heralded by a splurge of commentary about university rankings: Shanghai Index (now ARWU), the QS Top Universities and the Times Higher Education rankings. Each, on the surface, tells the same story for Irish universities – a dip in performance – UCD out of the top 100, Trinity out of the top 50, according to QS. The ARWU, with its heavy emphasis on science and Nobel Laureates, takes an unsurprisingly dim view of the Irish sector – no university makes it into the top 200. The press and university presidents have seized on these as evidence that Irish universities are starved of cash and are unable to meet global standards without additional financial support – and tuition fees are usually seen as the only realistic solution.

But it’s important to take a closer look – rightly or wrongly, these rankings now have a place in the public consciousness. The crude overall score in each case masks a good deal of complexity. In the QS rankings overall positions for Trinity and UCD were respectively 52 and 114. Broken down by area, the picture looks very different – 52 (TCD) and 89 (UCD) for Arts and Humanities, placing UCD in the company of some rather fine universities – 4 positions above Northwestern, a couple of spots behind Rutgers. In Natural Sciences, however, Trinity comes in at 81 and UCD at 261, making a nonsense of the composite figure as a meaningful measure of quality. On the QS employer index UCD comes in at a creditable 69, only 6 places behind Trinity. One might conclude that inadequate funding for research in science and technology makes it difficult for a university like UCD to compete globally, despite its expertise, whilst the humanities, which are low-cost, still continue to make a large impact on the world stage. The continuing high reputation of Irish universities in the humanities is the untold story of these rankings, and the arts the unsung hero of the university system.

There is no country of comparable size to Ireland that registers in the top 100 at all – the University of Helsinki scores consistently well at around 50 – Finland has a population of 5.25 million. Portugal, with a population of 10.7 million, has no university in the top 200. Ireland continues to punch above its weight, despite all the negative commentary about the third-level sector: two universities in or near the top 100, the remaining ones figuring in the ranking alongside highly respected institutions globally. This is a good news story – we are on a par with universities that are funded in ways similar to our own, we struggle to compete with universities whose per capita income outstrips ours. UCD’s annual income in 2008 was €357 million – less than a third of that of Cambridge University (ranked top in QS, 6th by THES) at £1140 million. UCD has a slightly larger student population than Cambridge. Go figure.

But how are the rankings compiled, and what do they actually mean? Like most rankings, the findings are only a reflection of the metrics applied. And quality isn’t just about money, as the performance of the Irish universities suggests. There is a good degree of consensus about the universities at the top. Further down, the lists get volatile, reflecting the vicissitudes of state support, research funding, hiring freezes and local conditions, even though most institutions will still be doing the same things in the same ways whether they are number 89 on the list or number 114. Neither are the rankings exactly “objective”. The QS rankings are based on a “Reputation Index”, namely what other academics think of each institution (this counts for 40%). It stands to reason that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: high profile, famous universities will be judged to be successful. Less famous ones will fall beneath the radar – or their specific strengths will not register because they fall outside of these measures.

Irish universities, for historical, cultural and linguistic reasons, tend to identify themselves with US and UK institutions, whilst also looking to Europe – most colleagues in UK universities have never heard of the Bologna Agreement, even though they are signatories to it. In Europe, we’re doing well – Trinity is number 14, whilst UCD comes in at a creditable 26. This perhaps reflects the fact that many, if not most, European universities are primarily teaching institutions, and rankings are largely about research – the THES allots 30% of its assessment to teaching, 65% to research activity and 5% to international factors.

European universities tend to have relatively poor staff-student ratios but also to prioritise teaching over research. And this is really the most important thing about university rankings – that they give insufficient weight to what many would still see as the key function of a university, namely teaching a core curriculum to undergraduates who will go on to use, develop and expand those skills in ways that benefit the society that contributed through taxation to third level education. The story of the rankings is really of the abandonment of this goal by governments and universities themselves in favour of more instant (and quantifiable) returns. These things are vitally important, but there is a risk that without a solid core of high quality undergraduate teaching, innovation and research will become a law of diminishing returns, increasingly reliant on imported expertise. When, rather than if, we move into a new era of tuition fees, the universities’ government-driven focus on research will come under renewed pressure. As a recent opinion piece in the Economist pointed out, the hours that American students spend engaged in study have fallen as inexorably as their tuition fees have risen, a factor partly attributed to the commitment of faculty to research at the expense of teaching. In a gobsmacking statistic, this year, 20 of Harvard’s 48 history professors are on leave. Students have every reason to ask their universities to spend less time worrying about rankings, and more time on educating them for the future.

Professor Danielle Clarke is a Professor of Renaissance Language and Literature in the School of English, Drama and Film, UCD.