With the recent publication of the 2011/2012 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Colm O’Grada looks at how relevant rankings are in a climate of economic cutbacks

In a strongly worded statement, Mike Jennings, General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, claimed that small changes in university ranking are being taken out of proportion and that they are not reflective of a university’s true value.

The Times Higher Education rankings are calculated on a wide variety of criteria, taking into account both teaching and research within an institution. Based on the five categories of Research, Teaching, Industry Income, Citations, and International Outlook, they are designed to examine all aspects of a university’s performance. Each of these categories contain further sub-categories, essentially looking at the university at quite a detailed level.

The top ten spots on the list are fairly predictable, with well-known and prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge and MIT all featuring. In fact, the high end of the list is dominated by universities in North America and the UK, with twenty-eight out of the top thirty located in those regions. Major Irish universities feature in the top 400 list, with UCD at 159 and Trinity at 117.

The IFUT’s argument with these rankings is understandable; how can you reduce all the qualities of a university, with its diverse range of subjects and experiences, down to a single metric? Small changes in rankings are given inflated importance and taken out of the context of a global university market composed of over 17,000 institutions. To feature in the top 400 list alone places an institution in the top three per cent of institutions worldwide; minor changes in position at these upper echelons of academic performance are surely not of great consequence.

The ability of Irish universities to remain competitive and well placed, despite aggressive cutbacks to both funding and staff numbers, underlines the fundamental strength of our institutions and their resilience to current economic challenges. With research funding cut dramatically, and competition for such support at an all time high, it is harder for academics to continue to produce high quality output. This funding issue also affects citation rates, as when publication rate falls, the number of citations a university receives will also drop. In addition, with a fall in the hiring of new academic staff, the ratio of students to staff increases with a subsequent impact on teaching ability. Despite these facts, UCD remains in the top 200.

The last year, however, has seen a drop in position from 94 to 159. The opinion of the IFUT smacks of defensiveness and fails to address the real issues; cutbacks to Irish university funding, whilst not crippling, are having measurable detrimental effects to multiple aspects of university performance. As one of the most prestigious universities in the country, a country with a proud and strong history of renowned academic institutions, it is only right that we seek to compare as favourably as possible with the best the world has to offer. In some ways, the argument of the IFUT is moot; the Times Higher Education rankings are globally recognised and arguably the most influential such metrics in the world. Their validity as perceived by vested interests such as the IFUT is not of importance; what is important is how our universities are perceived on a global stage and thus, how the credentials of our graduates are compared to those from foreign institutions.

It is simply objectionable to accept as inevitable that economic hardship will impact our academic competitiveness at a time when strengthening our country’s knowledge base is of paramount importance to improving our economic outlook. It is interesting to note that of the various criteria measured by the Times system, one of our greatest weaknesses is in the area of Teaching, scoring only 25.2 per cent. Even compared to institutions with a similar overall rank, this is noticeably low and is particularly relevant to the thousands of undergraduates who leave UCD each year to compete with those from overseas universities in what is now a global job market.

The solutions to our growing funding crisis are neither obvious nor painless. If Ireland is to compete at the very highest level of academic achievement, radical steps must be taken to reform and renew not only our individual universities and the funding systems that they rely on, but also the national third level framework, and how each such university is defined. ‘Good enough’ isn’t good enough when the strength of our workforce depends on having elite graduates to take the prestige and reputation of our institutions with them into the working world. We can argue about the relevance and validity of such ranking systems at length, but when global perception of academic institutions is so heavily influenced by these simple metrics, we must make it our business to strive to achieve as best a report card as we can.