Monday 27 March 2017

Why the US universities dominate rankings

Last week's column touched on the position of Irish universities in the recently published QS rankings.

The following day the Times Higher Education (THE) university rankings were published, and they listed two Irish universities, Trinity and UCD, in the world's top 100. Trinity was ranked 76th while UCD came 94th.

US universities dominated the THE rankings, with the world's top five listed in order as: Harvard, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Princeton, with Oxford and Cambridge tying for sixth place.

How is this US dominance achieved? Money has a good deal to do with it. These are very wealthy institutions, and in general, the US spends a higher percentage of GDP on education than many other countries.

Higher education is becoming a massive global business, and universities must respond to that challenge.

It is seen by emerging powers as the way to build their economies. India, for example, hopes to create millions of new university places by 2020.

Meanwhile, closer to home, last week's Junior Cert results have been well analysed, and it emerged that girls have, once again, done better than boys in most subjects.

However, there must be some comfort in the fact that a higher percentage of boys than girls got As in both higher- and ordinary-level maths in the Junior Certificate, given the importance of maths in the curriculum -- and given also the news that a number of universities plan to award bonus points for higher-level maths grades in the Leaving Certificate from 2012 onwards.

Last week UCD announced that it would introduce bonus points for higher level Leaving Certificate maths for a trial period of four years, starting in 2012. They say that the precise scheme will be decided in the coming weeks after consultation with other universities.

UCD is just about adhering to the unwritten rule that CAO institutions adhere to, of giving two-years' notice when they make changes to entry requirements or points procedures. Students entering their pre-Leaving Certificate year, who are embarking on their two-year Leaving Certificate cycle, will need to make the decision now whether to follow the higher-level maths course for the next two years until their Leaving Certificate exam in 2012.

Opinion is divided on the effectiveness of awarding bonus points for maths. However, it is generally acknowledged that more work is required for higher-level maths than for most other subjects, and that those who are required to take the subject -- for example applicants to honours engineering degree courses -- often find that their performance in other subjects suffers, because maths will have taken a disproportionate amount of their study time.

UCD identifies three dangers in introducing bonus points for higher-level Maths. The first is that it may contribute to increased competition; secondly, students who do not require high points for entry to their chosen courses may not see bonus points as an incentive to study higher-level maths, (and the main purpose of introducing bonus points is to encourage an uptake across the board), and thirdly, higher- level maths may not be available in all schools.

Irish Independent

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