A report just published by an expert group of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has cast a cloud over the celebrations which greeted last week's news that Trinity College Dublin had for the first time broken into the Top 50 of the world's best universities.
The HEA report is damning in its indictment of universities in the Irish Republic, whom it said had some leaderships who had failed to engage with the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB).
It also noted "sustained systematic shortcomings" where universities had unilaterally suspended quality assurance activities and ignored the IUQB. The IUQB itself is accused of, amongst other things, poor institutional review processes and follow- up procedures with the universities.
Trinity has risen four places in a year to break the magic 50 mark according to The QS World University Rankings. While University College Dublin has failed to make the Top 100 it has jumped 69 places to 108th in the world. No other Irish university appears in the Top 200 QS Rankings. The UK has 29 Universities in the Top 200 while Ireland has two.
However, the latest rankings are not without their critics and there are at least another three bodies that rank universities globally where Irish universities appear even farther down the list.
The HEA report into the activities of the IUQB made a number of serious criticisms of its operation including governance, engagement by senior university officers, clarity of mission and poor follow-up of review recommendations.
Of special concern to outside academics is that Irish universities, for all intents and purposes, still quality assure themselves. The IUQB was established by the Irish universities in 2002 to increase the level of inter-university co-operation in developing quality assurance procedures, but it remains an organisation that is perceived as a puppet of the university sector.
Of the 17 board members of the IUQB, seven are university-appointed and represent the top brass in each institution. The HEA report said that in light of this certain aspects of the structures would need to be changed in order that the board is seen as "independent, impartial and responsive".
Nor is the IUQB a quality assurance agency as is often portrayed. Rather it operates as a body that merely ensures the universities are carrying out their own reviews albeit with appointed external assessors. Irish universities therefore are spared the independent academic scrutiny that the vast majority of their colleagues in Europe and North America are subject to.
The latest positioning of Irish universities will have done little to assuage the sector's critics. While Trinity has broken into the Top 50, it is only a small improvement on last year and UCD remains outside the Top 100. Furthermore, no other Irish university has made this list.
Webometrics, another standard bearer for top universities, uses a different method to QS, instead examining the number of "hits" institutions get and research papers published. No Irish university appears in its Top 100 list.