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Rankings will get worse, not better, due to staff-student ratio

LIKE them or loathe them, university league tables cannot be ignored. Their critics may question the methodology and whether a particular measure is fair, but presumably they are as fair or unfair to all involved.

Would anyone doubt the top three in the world -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge and Harvard -- are not worthy of those slots?

Rankings are an at-a-glance guide, a starting point for those who are interested.

So, reputations formed through such analyses are important; they help build perceptions and contribute to a decision about whether any particular country is worth a second or third glance.

QS claims that their world university rankings are widely referenced by prospective students, governments and university professionals.

Rankings act as a filter for prospective investors, helping them decide where to set up operations or where to provide money for research.

It is not only in boardrooms that such decisions are being taken. Another form of investment being actively chased by our Government and universities is the international student.

The student from outside the EU, who pays full college fees and a lot more besides, is a valuable asset.

Such students, typically from Asia or South America, are worth more than €20,000 a year each when their living expenses are included.

So it is not only the IDA that is out there in the world competing for investment. Irish colleges have geared up for a greater slice of the international student market.

Only yesterday, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore launched Trinity College Dublin's Global Relations Strategy aimed at building Trinity's position as a university of global consequence.

While the changes in the positions of Irish colleges this year are not alarming, there is cause for concern.

Trinity has dropped two places, which may not seem like a lot, but it means that there are another two universities ahead of it on the list and others chasing..

Whatever Trinity and the others can do to improve their rankings, you can bet that every other university around the world is trying to do the same thing.

The problem for Ireland is that there is little prospect of an improved showing on such rankings, because of the heavy reliance on the staff-student ratio as an indicator of teaching quality.

The Government spend per student here is well below our international counterparts. With tighter budgets on the way, it will not get better.

Staffing levels in third-level colleges dropped almost 1,500 between the end of 2008 and 2011, while student enrolments are rising.

It is a poor day for Ireland when it is the salaries of university presidents that take a prominent position in league tables and not the reputation of their colleges.

Irish Independent