During the year I overheard someone from the SU talking about a special rankings commission he was involved with. The problem, he said, was how many academics had absolutely no interest in rankings: they considered it an insult that someone could assign a number to their work. He complained of Fellows who, with impunity, completely ignored the rankings commission.
In spite of these problems, the commission does seem to be beginning to work. QS have announced their 2017 rankings, and Trinity has climbed from 98th to 88th, staying in the top 100. It is considerably better than their performance in the Times rankings, where they sit outside of the top 100 at 131st.
University and national newspapers have tended in the last few years to say one of two things about these rankings. Either they say that the rankings are meaningless and a sign of the corporatisation of the academy, or that our universities are doing so badly in them because they need money.
Neither of these are completely true. The government may have invested €35 million in higher education in the last budget, but spread across the entire sector, and compared to the scale of the funding crisis, that is nothing. In other words, what has changed for Trinity is not that it suddenly has much more money to spend on improving itself.
Instead, it has restructured and reformed itself. Items like the introduction of Christmas exams and the Student Partnership Agreement, though unrelated to the rankings, show how Trinity has spent most of this year changing the way it does things. It would seem that the increase has mostly been because the people who ignored the rankings for so long have started to pay attention to them.
That this attention is paying dividends so quickly is in one way unfortunate for Trinity: it makes the funding problem seem less urgent. But it also shows what money and effort can do together. If Trinity and its Fellows can take more responsibility for its place in the rankings, and if the government can take more responsibility for funding it – or find a group of people who can – then it can actually become the “university of global consequence” it so often says it should be. But this requires both money and effort: money without effort or effort without money will not get us past 75th.
And we should aim high, because even if there are problems with them, rankings matter. They matter because even though, as with all rankings of everything, they are far from perfect, but the best tend to be at the top and the worst are usually at the bottom.
And they matter because people pay attention to them: students, academics, and business want to be associated with the top of the rankings, will pay money to and do research in them. Trinity’s ability to raise money and its reputation to do the kind of teaching and research that its Fellows and students want depends, whether they like it or not, upon the rankings.
These rankings are a good beginning, and a sign that Trinity’s fall has come to an end. But to keep rising, and become the university it believes it should be, it will need internal commitment to reform, and genuine financial help from the government.