The average Trinity student will work a part time job during the college year and, when hitting a bout of bad mental health, might run into lengthy waiting periods to see a counsellor or psychiatrist with College mental health services. If they’re from outside Dublin, they are paying on average €12,495 per year (including rent) to attend college in the single most expensive city in the eurozone. If they’re from near Dublin, like me, they could be burning an hour and a half each way commuting into the city from their family home. That’s a comparatively gentle situation – I’m only from Bray, and some students commute from as far away as Gorey or Naas. Student grants, if you qualify for them, are nowhere near enough to survive on. Trinity’s teaching assistants, lab supervisors and other postgraduate university staff- central players in the passing down of knowledge and skills from the experienced lecturers to inexperienced undergraduates – have it no better. Only a small portion of them can expect to end up in a tenure-track position, and in the wait for that job (which probably won’t come), non-permanent staff can expect to live precarious lives with low pay and poor job security.
“An institution is only as good as the people who work in it, and in Trinity most students and staff are glued together only by an admirable degree of resolve and the awareness of the amount of time and money already sunk into the place.”
An institution is only as good as the people who work in it, and in Trinity most students and staff are glued together only by an admirable degree of resolve and the awareness of the amount of time and money already sunk into the place. This is not a healthy learning environment. Simultaneously, College bemoans its fall in rankings while continuing to contribute to a negative experience for the very people who make a university what it is: its staff and students. In recent years Trinity has hiked up its on-campus rents, lobbied the government for exemption from Rent Pressure Zone legislation and, of course, attempted to introduce a €450 flat fee for supplemental exams.
“When news of Trinity’s latest tumble down the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings came out last week, I wasn’t surprised, but I was nervous that people would be quick to take away the wrong lessons.”
When news of Trinity’s latest tumble down the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings came out earlier this month I wasn’t surprised, but I was nervous that people would be quick to take away the wrong lessons. College got straight to it, and circulated an email to all staff instructing them to pull their socks up. Calls followed urging rankings to be a high-priority issue both for College and the government which, although ultimately correct, still focuses on the rankings themselves as the signifier of a downfall in education quality. This number, which if we’re being honest very few people look into, apparently crystallises accurately the entire sum of the qualities of every single university in the world into a clean number, which can be straightforwardly plotted on a chart ready for comparison. I don’t see eye to eye with the provost on many things, but he is probably correct to call it “reductive”.
The provost is also right to point out the funding shortfall in Irish higher education, but focusing on this alone would neglect more significant global crisis in higher education and research, something these rankings exacerbate rather than analyse. One of the metrics the THE rankings use is rate of academic paper publication, incentivising universities to encourage publishing papers at any cost, in order to increase their formal global standing. This unnecessarily increases workloads on academics and research staff, and clutters up any published literature with substandard studies; the result is often “salami slicing”, where a small number of findings is inputted into multiple different papers. This “publish or perish” environment doesn’t reward spending essential time on undergraduate teaching, and presents a claustrophobic work environment for researchers. Peter Higgs, of Higgs-Boson Particle fame, claimed in 2013 that contemporary expectations of productivity would have prevented him from making his discoveries. When Dean of Research Linda Doyle says that the rankings slip reflects competitor universities passing us by – as opposed to Trinity itself slipping – she ignores that positives for ranking purposes can be negatives in the real world. On many fronts, some of these universities may actually be chasing us to the bottom.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. Papers published in high impact-factor journals give a higher score for rankings purposes; these journals generally tend to publish positive findings and neglect inconclusive work as well as replicate studies. The perverse incentives introduced are hard to ignore. According to one survey, 28% of academics admit to having colleagues who have engaged in questionable research practices, as researchers forced to compete for prestigious journal slots turn to dishonesty. Royal Society Open Science calls this “the natural selection of bad science”. Notably, some of the highest-profile journals have some of the highest rates of retraction because of fraudulent findings. More banal, but all the more prevalent, problems like “p-hacking” and other means of massaging statistics to give positive results have become a major problem within science – and the race to get positive results published has led to the neglect of one of the cornerstones of the scientific method; replication of existing studies. Indeed, the replication crisis has gotten so bad that many significant papers are completely irreplicable. According to the Economist, some biotechnology firms presume, as a rule of thumb, that this amounts to about half of all published research.
“This “publish or perish” environment doesn’t reward spending essential time on undergraduate teaching, and presents a claustrophobic work environment for researchers.”
On the education side, things are hardly better. Harry Lambert in an excellent New Statesman piece details another set of perverse incentives introduced by rankings systems and the confused transubstantiation of “student” into “customer” in contemporary discussion. In essence, grades are inflated and testing standards dropped as British university students demand a return for their substantial financial investments in their degree. “Accountability” of lecturers to their students – who assume the role of customer in this model – predictably leads to an expectation that lecturers lay out a roadmap to getting a high degree grade. This is understandable from the student perspective, as £9,000 per year, plus rent and the opportunity costs of spending several years unable to work full time, is an incredible commitment. Who wouldn’t be upset having thrown so much into a degree, only for staff to leave it difficult to get your money’s worth with a high degree grade? The same applies in Ireland, where we pay Europe’s second highest college fees. Besides, with the decline of small-group mentoring and with the intolerable background noise of contemporary student life, scholarship is becoming a near-impossible task today.
Where rankings come into play are in the surveys of final year students and in employment prospects after graduation, both of which are metrics used in university league tables. This places an upward pressure on the average grade awarded, with employers preferring to hire students with high grades. Students, in turn, are more likely to give positive feedback about a college experience where they achieve strong grades than one in which they are struggling. Ultimately, the qualification itself is devalued, as institutions respond to these pressures by adjusting course content and assessment processes so that it is easier to achieve these grades. 20% of Trinity students can expect to get a first. As a final year student, it’s hard but important to admit that KhanAcademy and similar simple video lectures, which should be far too basic for someone in their fourth year of full-time specialised education to find useful, have bumped my exam grades up into possibly undeserved territory. Despite my experience with excellent teaching staff in the genetics department, it’s becoming clear that the contemporary university is incapable of providing close-quarters education and student-staff interaction at even a secondary school standard – so YouTube steps in to fill the gap. We don’t need the Times to tell us that this isn’t good enough.
If we want to rebuild an institution capable of producing quality research and a real, rounded education, we need to start with the fundamentals and not chase a top-100 slot on the global league table. Students need to call for a university with dramatically improved quality of life for students and staff, a freer research environment for academics, and an end to the grip of destructive and arbitrary metrics on education policy. We need to demand more postgraduate staff and for the dramatic improvement of their working conditions in order to restore a capacity for frequent small tutorial sessions and real engagement with course content. Whether this improves rankings is besides the point; we need education more than we need approval.