Rankings don't tell whole story - but Ireland's slide down chart can't be ignored
Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30
I've spent most of my career in education flagging the limitations of different forms of measurement.
Standardised tests of the reading and mathematics achievement of children in primary schools are only a moment-in-time measure. Written tests and examinations in post-primary schools can only measure a limited range of skills. Add high stakes to any test, and they can influence the educational experience the test is supposed to measure.
Today, I find myself adding a new limited measure to my list - university rankings.
The rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) follow the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai) and will be followed in a couple of weeks by the Times Higher Education rankings. QS is a private consultancy company, and, yes, you can hire it to help you to improve your university rankings.
Interestingly, of its survey of employers, the largest proportion of responses came from other consultants. One of its partners is Elsevier, the world's largest publisher of academic journals.
Three of the indicators used in the rankings relate to such publications.
The indicators do not include access for students from disadvantaged communities, the quality of the workplace for academic staff, student support, community engagement, innovation, or knowledge transfer. Engagement with industry is confined to the top 500 companies in the world (another ranking presumably) and excludes start-ups and SMEs.
What might have happened if, through some confusion on a grand scale, Tipperary ended up playing Georgia Tech at the weekend? Despite the efforts of Brendan, Bubbles and Co, the sheer size and protective layers of the Georgia Tech side would probably have resulted in a short but painful game.
QS University rankings 'play' the equivalent of Tipperary against Georgia Tech all the time. Context does not count. Neither do national priorities, nor funding models, nor system configuration.
They are based on a very particular vision of what constitutes a good university and, year after year, the rankings deliver a top 10 of elite research universities.
Further down the list, like the Tipperary vs Georgia Tech game, it all starts to get messy. The rankings can't take account of the fact that in countries like Ireland we expect more of our university system. We expect our system to provide a quality third-level education for an ever-increasing number of school leavers.
We expect it to foster research and development to create jobs and companies. Journal articles are not enough. We expect it to support those out of work who want to develop new skills.
We expect it to contribute to and lead debate, and provide the evidence we need for intelligent policy-making.
None of these is included in the QS rankings. We are Tipperary. They are Georgia Tech.
In recent years, the financial crisis saw the funding for the sector reduced from a high of €1.3bn in 2008, to €940m today. Across that period, we have introduced new ways to measure system effectiveness that focus on Ireland's national priorities. The performance of every higher education institution against a range of indicators is now published annually by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). This week, the HEA is holding a series of strategic dialogue meetings with all institutions to evaluate progress against published compacts on which funding is allocated.
The survey of student experiences, introduced in 2013, shows that students rate their experiences as high as their peers in the US and Australia.
All of these measures show that, despite the cuts, system quality has been maintained, but they have also shown that this has taken a significant effort from the staff and leadership of academic institutions, and at the expense of capital infrastructure and system development.
It has taken a heroic effort to stay in the game and meet national expectations.
The report of the Government's Cassells Review Group sets out the options for a sustainable funding model that will see the Irish system well into the 21st century. Action must follow.
The downward slide of Irish universities in the QS Rankings can't be ignored.
Despite their limitations, and the growing tide of criticism, rankings continue to attract attention and comment.
Ireland aspires to attract international students and staff to its higher education institutions. Rankings travel; background context is harder to sell.
A better-funded system in Ireland will never deliver a top 10 university as ranked by QS. By their standards, we will always be Tipperary.
But sustainable funding can ensure that Ireland's system delivers for the 2,000 extra students who will seek a higher education place each year for at least the next 15 and continues to grow the skills and talent needed for social and economic and social development.
It might also move more Irish universities back into the top 100, which would support our national reputation. And increase the chances of a Georgia Tech hurling team.
Dr Anne Looney is chief executive of the Higher Education Authority