For the past three years, Trinity has been on the decline, at least according to the QS World University Rankings, in which Trinity has fallen from 78th to 98th place this year. In the THE World University Rankings, Trinity is in an even worse position, coming in at 160th last year. These slumps have prompted numerous commentators to point to the lack of funding that colleges in Ireland receive, but how are these rankings actually drawn up, and just how much of this could be attributed to funding issues?
In 2004, Times Higher Education (THE) partnered up with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) to set up an annual ranking of the world’s universities. This partnership continued until 2009, as THE wanted to alter the methodology used, while QS wished to continue with what was already in use. Since then both organisations have been publishing their rankings every year, with the QS rankings released in August, and the THE rankings soon to be announced at the end of September.
The QS World Rankings are based on six factors: academic reputation, employer reputation, student-to-faculty ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. Academic and Employer reputation are both based on global surveys sent out to academics, who are asked to identify the institutions where they believe the best work is currently taking place within their own field of expertise, and employers, who are asked to identify the universities they perceive to be producing the best graduates. These account for 40% and 10% of the overall ranking respectively. The employer reputation also awards higher marks to universities that receive votes from employers in other countries.
Student-to faculty ratio makes up 20% of the overall ranking, and is a simple measure of the number of academic staff relative to the number of students. Citations per faculty similarly accounts for 20% of the final score, and measures the number of times research papers published by that university have been cited in other papers. Finally, international faculty ratio and international student ratio both account for 5% of the ranking, and measure the proportion of academic staff and students who come from other countries. All of these factors are marked out of 100, as is the final score.
What this breakdown means then, is that half of an institution’s final score is based on subjective factors, ie what other people think of the university, which has led a number of people to criticize the rankings. The reality is though that academic and teaching quality are quite difficult to measure, and relying solely on more objective factors such as number of citations and student-staff ratios doesn’t reflect them accurately.
Where has Trinity fallen?
So where does Trinity come into all of this? At its highest ranking, 61st, in 2013, Trinity had an academic reputation score of 81.8, and an employer reputation score of 82.6, both of which are considerably high. However, while Trinity was able to maintain a consistently high academic reputation ranking in 2014 and 2015 (81.1 and 82.5 respectively), it saw a drop in its employer reputation score with 70.1 and 73.5 respectively. Startlingly though, Trinity experienced a big drop in both this year, with scores of 68.2 in academic reputation and 57.8 in employer reputation, representing a 17% and 22% decrease from last year respectively.
Given the subjective nature of these two categories, it’s quite difficult to tell what the root cause of the decrease is. We can probably infer from this that the blame probably doesn’t rest on public funding alone, both because budget cuts have been happening for a number of years now yet the reputation scores have only suddenly fallen in the past year, and because other universities which have also seen budget cuts, such as NUIG, have still moved up the rankings. It could well be though that we are just now seeing the manifestation of years of lack of funding to universities.
Trinity also didn’t fair well this year with its faculty-to-student ratio, with a score of 39.6. This is down from 59.8 in 2013, 61.8 in 2014, and 60.7 in 2015. This is the area where funding is most relevant, given that decreases in funding immediately affect the ability of the college to have high faculty-student ratios. However it still only makes up for 20% of the overall ranking, so doesn’t fully account for Trinity’s drop.
In the other three categories, Trinity has remained largely unchanged. Citations per faculty is down to 62.4, from 63 in 2015, 72.4 in 2014, and 65.4 in 2013. The 2014 score seems like more of a slight outlier here, as opposed to a particularly meaningful change. Trinity’s best results are in the two “international” categories, with a score of 98 in international faculty and 85.9 in international students. Given Trinity’s emphasis on attracting international students, and the fact that one role of these rankings is to assist students in choosing universities, this result is a very good achievement. Although, Trinity is helped somewhat by the fact that Ireland is a small, well-developed nation, so is much more likely to have a higher ratio of international students than larger countries.
It’s important to note that there are other factors which also influence Trinity’s position in the rankings, with two in particular standing out. The first is the major bias towards English speaking countries in the rankings, which places 9 British universities in the top 50, but much fewer from similarly developed, but non-English-speaking countries such as Germany and France.
The second is the fact that scores tend to be grouped relatively tightly together, especially the lower you go down the rankings. The University of Barcelona has a score just 10 points lower than Trinity’s, but sits in 160th place in the rankings, while on the other end, the University of Munich is ranked in 60th position with a score 10 points higher than Trinity’s. Given how subjective these rankings are, small fluctuations can lead to big drops in points.
Ultimately, given these rankings have such a subjective nature, it is very hard to infer any real conclusion about the root causes behind Trinity’s recent fall. While it’s probably fair to say that funding does play a role in this, asking academics and employers their perception of the college makes it very difficult to weigh up just how important it is.