TCD and UCD slip in QS university rankings

By Evan Musgrave

The publication of the 2010 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings sees the decade-long progression by Trinity and UCD halted. This year’s rankings, in which Trinity has fallen out of the top 50 and UCD out of the top 100, come as an OECD report highlighted low levels of investment in Irish education. Ireland lies 30th out of 33 OECD countries, with just the Czech Republic, Italy and the Slovak Republic spending less on education as a percentage of GDP.

The downward movement of Ireland’s two highest-ranked universities has ignited discussion concerning the sustainability of the country’s educational funding base. Furthermore, the publication worryingly calls into question the stability of Ireland’s prestige as a knowledge-driven economy.

Academics can tend to treat International university rankings disdainfully, considering the possibility of relating the many factors involved to be problematic. The QS Rankings must be carefully considered, however, being globally regarded as the truest reflection of quality among universities by employers.

Under the QS system, universities are ranked on the basis of data gathered on aspects such as the number of academic citations per faculty to employment possibilities to staff-student ratios. The Provost, Dr John Hegarty, believes that Trinity’s staff-student ratio is leading the drop in the rankings, and warned that the university’s ratio would “deteriorate further unless there is a meaningful change in the level of national investment”.

By the end of this year staffing levels across universities in Ireland will be down by six percent. This will feed into next year’s world university rankings, cutting into our staff-student ratios. A fall in the QS rankings will also affect Trinity’s ability to attract top academics. Many of the top universities are able to build and sustain their rankings by competing for academics who will bulk up the university’s number of citations. Thus, a fall in the rankings has the potential to begin a downward spiral if not rectified.

The president of UCD, Dr Hugh Brady, stated the movement in the QS rankings was not unexpected, pointing to the fact that “while Irish universities are cash-starved, other countries are investing solidly in their third- and fourth-level sectors”.

In Ireland, the fall in the world rankings for both Trinity and UCD has raised awkward questions about a sustainable form of appropriating funding for higher education. In an interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland, Hegarty was candid in admitting a shift down the rankings had been expected, but expressed his concern that further decreases in resources could exacerbate Trinity’s fall. This week’s rankings for Irish universities are based on data supplied in late 2009, just as cuts across the sector were taking effect. The drop also comes at a time when college tuition fees are on the rise. The question of efficiency and value for money must be raised in light of these rankings.

Good news for Trinity students however is that the university charges one of the lowest registration fees in the nation, while being ranked the highest for quality. Hegarty was quick to point out the recent investment in Arts and Humanities in the college, additionally highlighting this faculty as the university’s highest ranked sector.

Despite this, a matter of concern must be noted in the consistent fall of Trinity’s Arts and Humanities, from being ranked 32nd best in the world in 2008 to 52nd this year. The Provost believes increased investment, such as the new €6 million Arts and Humanities Research Institute, known as the Trinity Long Room Hub, will help buck the trend and increase Trinity’s profile.

Interestingly, while TCD’s Arts and Humanities ranking has been falling, the status of Engineering and IT and of Life Sciences and Biomedicine has been improving. The result is a much more balanced break down of Trinity’s ranking. Celtic-Tiger era investment and a more levelled base means Trinity is not badly set up to recover ground. Funding must arrive sooner rather than later, if the slip is to be rectified.