Low Quality of Irish Universities Confirmed

I’ve been patiently waiting for a response to, or even a report in Ireland of, the  publication of the 2009 Shanghai  Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities.  See http://www.arwu.org/indexs.jsp.  Could this possibly be a case of socioanalytic denial? 

This is by far the most widely used ranking in the world for three reasons.  It is almost impossible to ‘game’. It is used as an information tool by internationally mobile students.   It is designed to honestly assess the evolution of the relative position of Chinese Universities: we know it’s honest because they don’t score well.  

There have been enthusiastic references in the Irish media and in this blog to other university rankings.  This is because some Irish universities appear to be important in these.  But you should be suspicious: they also rank many British universities well above obviously superior US institutions.  The apparent success of some Irish Universities is a by-product of this ludicrous outcome.

Go on:  check it out.  Has the Portarlington Institute for Science and Society got the recognition it deserves?

63 replies on “Low Quality of Irish Universities Confirmed”

Our universities seem to be doing as well – or as poorly – as most other mid ranking European countries. We’re not leading the field, but we’re not total laggards either.

@ Michael Moore,

Thanks for raising this issue Michael. I have to agree with you.

What struck me is as follows. When I began as a third level student in the early 1990s, the universities looked okay. Yeah, much building stock and investment looked to be there for a while. Dates ranging from the early 20th century often, to the 1960s.

The regional technical colleges were quite modest structures too. Some of them received investment in the 1990s and recently. The dispersed regional colleges have improved. The Limerick university campus has been one of Ireland’s successes. We saw a similar program of improvements and rapid expansion taking place in DCU campus from the 1980s onwards. Both Limerick and DCU began their building programs in the 1980s and maybe it was best, because construction inflation increased rapidly thereafter.

But during the period of wealth and prosperity in Ireland, my attention was drawn to venerable old institutions such as Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Not to mention my alma mater, Dublin Institute of Technology. DIT was hampered by a big masterplan for Grangegorman site and therefore ran down its building stock over the past number of decades. But it appears the Grangegorman plan has hit the rocks once again.

The Grangegorman plan does have one thing going for it. It has the support of the Dublin City Council planners, because the new campus would sit favourably into a new, re-invigorated Dublin City Centre, where multiple nodes offer new centres of activity and specialisation throughout the city.

But that leaves us with TCD and UCD. UCD has embarked on a series of additions, improvements and investments. My fears were two in particular. The building projects undertaken at UCD in particular were good, but fragmented. Not seeming to add up to a dramatic improvement. Sometimes, even the new additional buildings added little value. The grey brick student centre at UCD springs to mind, beside the site for the badly sports facility.

But in general, I thought, the university establishments which had been one of the few sites for construction and development during the 1980s, the low periods for Irish construction, were suddenly left behind. There was construction and modern-isation of all kinds happening all over Dublin city, all around the universities.

But institutions such as the RTE broadcasting campus, many of the hospitals and universities began to show their age. They obviously had the benefit of generous land and space. Components which commanded a premium price during the Celtic Tiger. But it was strange to see all of the acres of new car parking in UCD, full of new cars owned by students who visited the old 1960s building stock for tuition each day.

As Ruairi Quinn, TD for Labour remarked of the Celtic Tiger, it is like Kenneth Galbraith’s book, The Affluent Society. We have enormous private wealth and public poverty.

We don’t seem to have gained much skill in Ireland in terms of building masterplans, on things which are like large campuses. Things like medical campuses, learning or business. The religious orders strangely enough have done it in earlier centuries which impressive results – from a building and development point of view at least. The old English landed class did it before that. But as a young nation Ireland has difficulties.

Some of the early industry architecture, the food industry and so on, is interesting to look at. Park West in Dublin city was a modern retail, commercial, office and residential campus built. It replaced a lot of out-dated industrial building stock near the M50. But we need to review this. Places for learning are important.

An urban design and architectural competition is a very cheap and useful way to gain ideas and insight. Also, it would keep a few young-er people in the design fields in some minor commission work.

When a society accepts those who have been selling their office as public representatives, it is no surprize that others, seeing what may be accepted and hoarding their own knowledge of wrongdoing, start down the same slope letting standards slip and encouraging others to do the same, so as to further profit from the debasement of the currency of hard work.

Those who naively struggle for standards will find themselves victimized as their attempts are a direct threat to each of those around them who now fear all honesty.

How long does it take for a fish to rot from the head?

TCD, QUB in the 80-125 ranking bracket in Europe.
UCC, UCD in the 126-170 ranking bracket in Europe.
UCG & UL not even included in ranking within Ireland??

If this is the gold standard for University ranking then it is disappointing. This is particularly so if top class post-grads are eschewing Irish Universities based on these stats.

I could not find details of the ranking on the site but what I read on Wikipedia left me unimpressed particularly the arbitrarily high weighting on Nobel & Field medals for both alumni & faculty.
I think anyone who spends much time looking at rankings of universities, departments, individual scholars & particularly any academic who creates them (including those engaged in blatant self-promotion) has way too much time on their hands.


@Kevin Denny
You’re right, we shouldn’t bother with statistics at all. Total waste of time. 41.3% of them are made up anyway…

It is a fair comment from Michael that the media (and internal university press office staff) have been silent on these – so silent that I didn’t know they were out!

Not sure what makes these more or less important except for the crucial point made by Michael that prospective students make more of this than of other ranking. I think the ranking is just as sensible (or daft) as others.

LSE is a good example – one of the finest educational centres in the globe and ranked down amongst TCD globally as badly hit by not having any scientists. Or, why Walton winning the nobel in 1951 and being an alumni of TCD (therefore counted twice) should matter now is unclear to me? By the way, TCD and UCD are indistinguishable when you take out Walton!

I was interested in the economics and business ranking – http://www.arwu.org:80/ARWUSubject2009EconomicsBusiness.jsp – and how it compares to the RePEC ranking in Economics – http://ideas.repec.org/top/top.inst.all.html. The answer is pretty close indeed. The differences allow you to see where the killer business schools are. Cambridge does very well in Shanghai and not so well in RePEC but they have a really well endowed business school. Same point is true of Imperial College.

The other Shanghai data is also interesting – Ireland has 0.6% of the top 500 and 0.1% of the population, or 0.5% of the GDP. Sounds good. But a lot of the others do better – Australia has 3.4% of the top 500 but 0.3% of the population and 1.7% of the GDP.

Overall the index – and all of the others – are unfortunately perhaps indicative of a high water mark for the Irish Uni’s given current resource issues, mainly that of the recruitment freeze.

I think your verdict is too negative. There are 3 Irish institutions in the top 500. Given the size of the country, that is not bad.

The Shanghai ranking has two peculiar features. First, it is biased towards large universities. Irish universities are, on average, small (at least, in Europe). Second, it puts extraordinary weight on elderly high-flyers (Nobels, Fields, ISI Highly-cited). In economics at least, Irish universities have improved rapidly, but this has yet to be picked up.

These are no excuses, just explanations.

The problem I have with the SJT rankings, apart from that which Kevin Denny has noted, is that for the Irish universities they are fairly significantly out of whack with the others. Now, maybe they are right and the others wrong, but I suspect not.
To take an example from Kevins issue – Caltech. A fantastic technological powerhouse. But hardly at the races (relativly speaking) in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Yet, its ranked 6. Does anyone think that Caltech in the round is the sixth best university in the world (whatever on earth that means?)?

@Brian O’Hanlon
Im confused here – the quality of a university is only very very partially related to the quality of its physical plant. Of far more importance is the intellectual plant, the student-faculty-administrative bodies. Its much easier it seems to go to someone and say “hey, give us 5m and you can name a building” than to say “hey, give us 7m and you can have a chair named after you”, not to mind “hey, give us “1m and that will endow a couple of phd students forever”.
Yes, some new builds are required – its much preferable to teach in lecture rooms with plugs at each seat, nice AV, carpeting, surround sound etc, and to have airy atria for students to meet therein, and please santa can I have a dedicated finance terminal room, but in the end these have a lifespan of a couple of decades while the same investment in students/staff/quality admin gives centuries of use. IMHO.

@ Richard
Let’s get real. Where is the evidence that “In economics at least, Irish universities have improved rapidly…”. Don’t trouble me with RePEc or other easily manipulable measures.

Use criteria that cannot be gamed: How often have Irish Economists appeared in the top 5 general journals? How many Irish Economists, working in Ireland, are NBER research fellows or have even authored NBER research papers……

@ Brian Lucey,

Well, the purpose of commenting on the building stock of the universities, I suppose, was a useful way to contrast and compare developments in the various institutions happening over the last couple of decades.

– UL and DCU new campuses opened up.
– DIT and Grangegorman.
– UCD relatively tame activity, but some.
– New IT’s nationwide, for example De Blacam and Meagher architect’s masterplan.
– Even new campuses like DunLaoghaire college of art and design, which never existed.

Certainly, there was a parallel construction of academic infrastructure which must have happened at the same time.

The main point I was trying to make though, was Ruairi Quinn’s point, about private affluence and public poverity. As the Celtic Tiger continued, deputy Quinn could see this imbalance becoming worse. Looking at public institutions such as hospitals, universities and other public organisations, an entire analysis could be done, to verify and explore deputy Quinn’s assertion.

I have personally benefit myself from a wealth of publically oriented lectures and events organised by the new ‘Bernard McNamara’ chair for construction at Trinity College Dublin. I believe it was foresight on the part of Mr. McNamara to award something towards education, given the point I raised earlier, the whole world was being re-built around the relatively peaceful and cloister-ed worlds of academia.

However, when I suggested to some colleagues of mine that it was nice to see at least one of the successful Celtic Tiger figure heads award something to a university, my suggestion was met by much cynicism and foul-mouth-ed condemnation. So I guess, one can’t win. Devil if you do and devil if you don’t.

I had forgotten to mention the Science building in Trinity funded personally by Dr Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex. The McNamara chair of construction studies is housed fairly nearby.

I guess if Mr. McNamara had funded a building at Trinity college, it would have been the safest option to take. Although, given the shortage of land at Trinity, it cannot accomodate endless amounts of building dedicated to X, Y and Z. The site and scale of funding offered by Dr. Naughton did match up.

Certainly, I could not have attended so many learning experiences as I did last year, had the BM chair of construction not existed in the first place, to organise the events. A building with a BM name plaque could not have offered me the same learning experience.

Furthermore, in connection with the new chair in construction at Trinity, several Phd positions were opened up, sponsored or supervised, taught (don’t know the right vocab) by difficult TCD faculties. I mean, a colleague or two of mine, involved in construction has taken his studies to the post-grad level and availed of this new opportunity. A small thing maybe, but very nice to see.

BTW, Daniel Okrent’s book Great Fortune is a very good read, because the Rockefeller Centre was built on Columbia University’s land. The book gives an intriguing insight into politics and affairs that university chair persons have to deal with. What we have though in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger, isn’t so much universities leasing their lands to super-rich. But we have seen much, much land controlled by religious orders dispensed at a fairly even pace throughout the entire Celtic Tiger era.

What happened there, that some of that land at least was put in trust of our universities? I mean, in such a way that a university might own the land, but offer it for lease, as in the same fashion of Columbia university and Rockefeller.

The unfortunate thing in the case of Columbia University, was the treasury department had a difficult task, to prevent the university director from spending all of the rent roll they received from Rockefeller. In a sense, it is like soccer clubs I suppose. Any money that comes in, has a tendency to be used up, in buying the best players.

I would be interested in a scatterplot of ARWU ranking versus mean professorial salaries.

What would the game of “spot the outlier” reveal I wonder?

My question in relation to the Dell workers grant from the EU was always this one.

Take 2,000 directly affected Dell employees and thousands more indirectly affected. One could take the millions from the EU and divide it up ‘X’ no. of ways to gift out to individual workers. Yeah, it might pay a few car loans, a few ESB bills and then what?

On the other hand, why not take the Dell money from the EU and establish a Limerick University and Limerick Institute of Technology joint endowment. Then the ‘community’ in the Limerick region aught to call it the Michael Dell endownment for scientific studies. Then Michael Dell himself would be shamed into raising the same amount himself, to put into the same endowment.

Then give past Dell employees preference to do studies of their choice in the said Limerick institutions. (Or offer places to the kids of the Dell workers at discount) Allow the Limerick based institutions to invest the money as best as they see fit, to improve education quality and availability in the Limerick region. I think the EU money would go much further.

NBER involvement is not, necessarily and self evidently, the ne plus ultra of economic academic success. Nor is publishing in the top journals the key to the kingdom See for example the very interesting work by Andrew Oswald Economica 2007 where he concludes ” The paper finds that it is far better to publish the best article in an issue of a medium-quality journal like the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics than to publish the worst article (or often the worst 4 articles) in an issue of a top journal like the American Economic Review” or the work of Starbuck OrgScience 2005 ” .. there is much overlap in articles in different prestige strata. Indeed, theory implies that about half of the articles published are not among the best ones submitted to those journals, and some of the manuscripts that belong in the highest-value 20% have the misfortune to elicit rejections from as many as five journals. Some social science departments and business schools strongly emphasize publication in prestigious journals. Although one can draw inferences about an author’s average manuscript from the percentage in top-tier journals, the confidence limits for such inferences are wide”
As for how has irish economics improved – look at the recent Forfas bibliometric study (altho its very limited as it looks at ISI WoS only and doesnt adjust for population sizes either in national or in institutional terms) , esp p 29 (irelands share of papers in economics and business has increased in recent years), and p61, where relative to a comparable (size pop) group citation rates have improved (but are still low). One might also note in passing that when one strips out business (inc accounting and finance but excluding econ) “Irish business research has shown strong improvement in terms of rates of citation since 2004. From a low base (citation impact = 0.56 – much lower than world average) Irish papers are now being cited at better than world average (citation impact = 1.27 in 2007). This improvement is complemented by the increase in research volume “

I would dispute the validity of the Shanghai rankings based on their rather questionable methodology. They place emphasis on how many Nobel and Field prize winners a university produces, yet how enriching are these for the students’ academic experience? Samuel Beckett and Ernest Walton may have won Nobel prizes, but what does that matter to the average Trinity student? Does it mean that Trinity’s drama and science departments are enriched by Beckett and Walton’s presence? I doubt it.

Furthermore, the Shanghai rankings focus on how many papers are published in Science and Nature. This has its weaknesses since it doesn’t account for the relative quality of papers produced and it is biased towards research universities. Moreover, the fact that your lecturer has published 101 articles in Science means very little to you the student if he/she can’t communicate this knowledge and analysis in lectures.

The THES QS rankings are worthy of note because they actually take account of both academics’ and employers’ views of the different academic institutions. Academics would have a very good idea of what makes a good university and employers would be able to judge, based on the quality of the graduates they employ from these universities, how good they are in terms of providing a good education.

THES QS rankings are also valuable because they take account of the international dimension of the university experience. If a university is attracting staff and students from across the world, it indicates that they are a quality institution.

indeed – fair play to anyone who ponies up. However, two issues need to be borne in mind (and this isnt carping…)
a) in many cases (and I dont know if this is the case in the McNamara Chair in Construction Innovation) the monies for a chair are not a full endowment, but are rather a “primer” for 4-7 years, after which the chairholder is expected to have raised the ongoing costs.
b) naming rights do not cover anything like the cost of buildings. TCD are looking to build a new b-school – the naming rights are a smallish fraction of the budgeted cost.

@ BL,

I have to insert one observation though, a study needs to be done in terms of the value for money obtained in buildings on university grounds.

As I said, the ground to build on is plentiful in such places as UCD campus. But when you see huge, expensive brise soleil features mounted on all 4 no. sides of the business studies building at UCD, one has to wonder. I remember price-ing a tiny piece of brise soleil to add to one of my own buildings not too long ago. It did add a considerable amount to the cost. The brise soleil on the UCD building are enormous. Similarly, the building beside the lake at UCD has attractive metallic sun shades also and looks fabulous.

The medical science building at UCD, the new one for training of nursing profession and so forth, was built in a donut shape. Apparently funding for the project was obtained in dribs and drabs. But use of the donut shape enabled the university to publically tender several times, as they received various small portions of the overall budget from the state. But the same building contractor was able to stay on site throughout the job, and tender the lowest price each time. Had the architect not got experience in how the funding process for education works, with the Dept. of Ed., they could not have seen this opportunity.

What stands at UCD now as a school for medical science, looks like a very completed structure – almost, as if it were conceived as one design – but in fact, it is a mix and match of several different grants, joined up together, and sunk into one decent attempt at a building. There is a lot of financial engineering that happens behind the scenes, but still staying within the rules of fair-play, public tendering process etc.

People in the trade are hugely critical of the new ‘value for money’ fixed sum contracts for schools around the country. A whole other discussion.

@ Brian Lucey
I’m quite familiar with the arguments about the merits of the lesser journals but I’m unimpressed by the independence of any evidence offered by a local source such as Forfas.

Think of it like this: how many Irish academic economists would have met both the quantity and quality criteria of the 2008 UK research asessment exercise? Even these requirements were minimal. The reality is that Irish academics are incentivised to do just about anything except serious research.

@ Michael Moore,

This is to do more with the building stock on university land again, rather than the academic infrastructural argument, but I think it is worth noting.

Take a place like Tallaght for a second, a unimpressive suburban sprawl constructed in the 70s. It was a basic formula, rows of terraced housing, one road un-distinguish-able from the next. No public building, square, landmark or anything. Simply the cold and wet, west wind blowing through the place.

Later on the civil service had to retrofit this region with all kinds of basic services and institutions. As funding became available, a million here and half a million there, it was put to use in buying this house and that. Renting something else, different civil service programs, different department expenditure programs. You can imagine, it wasn’t very organised. It was fire fighting. But a lot of spending went on.

At the end of it all, one could not identify a definite town centre, a plan, a structure, anything. Yet investment had gone through various channels – it was just that the investment was used in small amounts, dispersed throughout the various housing estates. What it is known as in the urban design trade, is a lack of critical mass. That is, no building stood out and distinguished itself as the institution for health service ‘X’ or employment services ‘Y’. The money had merely been spent as it was available and accordingly as crisises arose.

This is a useful analogue for how universities spawn, except they are a little tidier, as they happen on one campus. But universities are notoriously bad, in that they lack a key ingredient of critical mass. I often wonder in a place such as Tallaght, is the government better off to invest in building stock, which is generic, large and identifiable to the community? I mean, like a large container for various civil and public functions. It is notoriously difficult for planners and architects though to achieve critical mass with their projects, given how funding happens and who administers it.

One template to bear in one’s mind is an old Georgian Square. Think of St. Stephen’s Green before it was built, as this rough outline on the land of a square. A road and a series of plots. A more urban scale version of the donut I described earlier for the medical sciences building at UCD. Now as private developers come along to the nascent Georgian Square, they develop plots as they progress. One could make a similar argument for the grid iron pattern of Manhattan and so forth.

Trinity college is a good example of a series of descernable square spaces, around which are constructed buildings of different periods and styles. Somehow the over-arching structure defined by the basic rule, imposing an order on what would otherwise be dis-orderly construction activity. I believe that in time, it is this sense of order which lends a great deal of prestige to such institutions.

I know that building of prestige in the academic achievement side of it, is a different matter. But it is one which would ultimately depend on funding and resources at a given moment in time. Perhaps it would be sensible to set up the rule in advance and allow the university to develop the complete picture as time went on. Indeed, at a macro-level of a country, perhaps Ireland itself required that all-defining society order and structure, that investment in periods of boom or bust could plug into. To get back the best value for one’s investment of resources over the longer period.

Brian o’H
Buildings, in the end, are NOT a university. No matter how nice. universities are about people. not portland stone

Are there any over-arching themes that could be used as a way to foster motivation and focus? Anything in society going on which is so important, it might be used over a 10-year period to rally the troops together?

For instance, in the case of the McNamara chair in construction innovation, I understand it is a multi-department attempt to flesh out what is meant by this phrase, the low carbon city. Accepting the fact, that Trinity college may produce some renowned work in this area, is there any particular focus that another university might take?

I recall that back in the early days at University of Limerick, the nearby industry of Shannon airport acted as a kind of simulus for engaging inquiry and research into things aeronautical.

Just a suggestion.

Bolton Street where I studied was a top-to-bottom cross-section of the entire construction industry. Funnily enough though, not many cross-disciplinary work was done, as possibly not research work at all. But I know at a basic, community level there was a lot of interaction amongst staff there. Still is.

What Liam Carroll did was interesting though – his construction company became, in turn, almost a mini-version of Bolton Street college. It was called ‘Royceton’. I was fortunate enough to actually meet with and debate with some of the folks who had attended the other faculties at Bolton Street. You wouldn’t believe the creative interactions that can lead to. When you put these people together.

Just another daft thought.

on things building, as this thread seems to have become derailed into planning and so on . …. isnt it strange that we have no chair in property finance or real estate economics in this property obsessed country?

Look at property as it is handled at government level even, not to mind university level.

This whole argument of a department of Agriculture is part of that. When the ‘bacon scare’ happened in 2009 for instance, we quickly realised in abrupt fashion, that this lean and efficient supply system we call agriculture, can suddenly get very expensive if it is vulnerable.

But it was interesting to listen to the debates amongst construction and property departments in universities during the Celtic Tiger. Much of it revolved around this fact 3.0% of Ireland’s GDP was tied up in farming. A much greater percentage being tied up in things to do with infrastructure and cities. Yet we have no department for urbanism.

(Remember, it is a good thing possibly that agriculture accounts for such low percentage of GDP output – that means we are lean etc – but here again, is a case where GDP can give a totally misleading picture, a la Stiglitz, Sarkozy etc)

I took this excellent suggestion to one of my old tutors I respected from Bolton Street days, Noel J. Brady, who is experienced with urban design and what not. But Noel mentioned the fact to me, there is a Europe-region-wide funding system for investment in cities and towns. I don’t know the full details of the scheme – whether it is for analysis work of master-planning and so forth, or for projects per se.

But Noel J. Brady’s point was that Ireland applies for a lot of central funding from Europe on the agriculture side, as a normal course of events. But we have never received any of these series of ‘Urban’ grant aid. Apparently, there is no framework for this in Ireland.

The Department of the Environment has attracted some talent from the various building disciplines down through the years though. They are part of a new initiative called ‘The Urban Forum’ which seeks to establish communication lines between professional bodies – surveyors, planners, architects, engineers – and the Dept of Environment.

Those are the kinds of structures – or lack of structures – present in Ireland, as far as property and finance goes.

@ Brian Lucey
In the UK, academics are incentivised as follows: (1) tenure has been abolished and (2) University funding is sharply related to research assessment exercise (RAE) performance. These policies have lead to tthe following: academics can and are sacked for failure at research; salaries are off scale and are related to the academic’s RAE value.

@ All: The Idea of a University? Why do we need such institutions? For the glorification of faculty or the education and training of novices? How come there is no mention of ‘undergratuate teaching quality’ as a significant metric?

Might be interesting to find out how many third-level lecturers and tutors teaching undergrads have an actual third-level teaching qualification (they are available). I would put money – E 100, that it is <1%.

B Peter

@ BP Woods,

A very relevant point. (Not like my property ramblings up above)

But what my thoughts about universities and property have made me think about also, is all of the extra educational institutions we now have. Places which did not even exist, not so long ago.

As part of an ealier IE blog discussion, I re-iterated a point I learned from the recent Prime Time Investigates program on RTE television.

“As George Lee put it tonight on the ‘Frontline’ hosted by Pat Kenny, Ireland has €300 billion of debt to pay, between bank asset work out, the national debt and personal mortgage exposure.

In 1999, the total was much less than €100 billion between all those things. (There was no NAMA ten years ago obviously)”


The Frontline TV program hosted by Pat Kenny discussed the fact, that Ireland is still as wealthy as it was ten years ago. But the question is, how do we manage which a much larger debt, if our income and wealth has remained constant (at best)?

This applies to universities also. We have more or them than we used to. Our population has climbed a bit, but I wonder if there are more old and less young?

The one thing about the construction downturn, is the prices will receed. Universities should be encouraged to look at their building programs. The government should be encouraged to help them with finance.

Now, having made that point, I will turn the discussion back to what Brian Lucey rightly pointed out – yeah, universities are about people. Not portland stone.

@michaelmoore, @brian lucey

bingo! This is going to be a critical feature for Irish unis in future. With the relativities to higher civil servants finally broken, the need for uniform salary without performance pay is also gone. One way forward for Irish institutions and their budget problems is to stop pretending all academics are equal!

@ M Moore

“academics are incentivised as follows: (1) tenure has been abolished and (2) University funding is sharply related to research assessment exercise (RAE) performance … academics can and are sacked for failure at research”

Interesting incentivisations.
That can go two ways:
Academics can play it safe and stay in the herd researching what will get published and research becomes socialised to a degree. As I have had it explained to me, UK academics work to reach their quota of publications, research success then becoming more presentation skills than exploration.

Tenure can allow academics the freedom to research areas they are passionate about, the awkward stuff, the newer areas, premature knowledge, Black Swans if you will!

Good research does need a ‘fire under ones feet’
Whether that be created by each individual academic or by attempting to create a culture that produces it for all academics would be more to do with ones view of human nature.
But in saying that the foundations of ones sense of academic freedom would be based on ones sense of human nature.
What is yours?


All the best

@Michael Moore
There are more internationally renowned economists in Ireland who are around 40 years of age, then around 50, around 60, or around 70. And indeed some of those around 40 have achieved already as much as the best among those who are around 60.

Your top-journal-fetishism is outdated. It used to be that the only pragmatic way to judge a paper was to look at its cover. Nowadays, one can count citations of individual papers. It used to be that one would get papers by journal, but nowadays one gets papers by search term.

@Brian Lucey:
“TCD are looking to build a new b-school”

Build? As in pay someone to construct something? I’d have thought they could find lots of empty buildings that NAMA would pay to have taken off its hands.

Although some might be on the north side.


Having worked here since 1992, its b****ing obvious to me that the quality and quantity of research by economists has improved very significantly in that period. It is partly a generational thing (bringing better training, a more international outlook) and some may be due to the extra funding that has became available: I suspect the former more than the latter.
I would also say that the current state of the profession its less dependent on a small number of exceptional individuals which is also probably a good thing.

Al says:

“Academics can play it safe and stay in the herd researching what will get published and research becomes socialised to a degree. As I have had it explained to me, UK academics work to reach their quota of publications, research success then becoming more presentation skills than exploration.”

At the risk of basing the discussion upon the experience of all economists in universities, I attempted in places above to broaden the discussion somewhat, to faculties such as construction, property, agriculture, medical science and so on.

But what about computer science?

What Al talks about there, social-isation of research. When I think about it, computer science history is something I have read a lot about. Everything and anything to do with computer science is social-ise to a high degree. It has something to do with the division of labour, required with programming, software etc. Lets face it, some of the most prestiguous universities in the world I have heard about, have made their reputations in the area of technology etc.

The Open Source software movement practically depends on the efforts of tenured university professors worldwide. People say, what happened with Linux would probably have happened earlier with Unix in the 1970s, if the bandwidth had been available. A similar sort of community would have formed. The history of Linux is quite interesting and well documented.

But even read a book such as Steven Levy’s Hackers and one will notice a very strong communal kind of culture. The famous nineth floor of the computer science building at MIT. That was a kind of herd culture for sure, but produced the basis for computer science as we know it today. Maybe the herd is the way to go in something as new and fresh as computer science is. Say, compared to something very well established such as mathematics or economics even.

38 responses and some 70 references to TCD and UCD but only one mention of UCC which is ranked as joint second nationally with UCD.

Dem Cork lads must have better things to be doing than blogging.

But what are the academic economists producing?

“Halfway through John Cassidy’s new book, How Markets Fail, there is a revealing anecdote about Morgan Stanley. Back in the mid-1990s, Cassidy asked officials at this once-mighty US bank how they recruited economists, only to be told that Morgan Stanley avoided hiring anybody straight from university.

“We insist on at least a three-to-four-year cleansing process to neutralise the brainwashing that takes place on those graduate programmes,” Stephen Roach, the firm’s chief economist is quoted as saying, noting that academic economists appeared to have become dangerously divorced from reality.”
Roach has a Ph.d from NYU.

I guess my question is – what universities are above Irish ones that we think we should be better competing with? Is it credible to expect TCD and UCD to rank with Oxford, MIT and so on? Canada’s top university comes in at 27 and has 1.25bn endowment and 45,000 students. Are we willing to rationalise the postgraduate sector sufficient to get the critical mass that will get Ireland on the radar – and will it be worth it beyond the warm fuzzy feeling of seeing TCD go as high as 100th and the other universities being basically undergradate feeder schools?

The basic duties for most is teach, administrate and research.
Depending on specifics of people and situations, there is usually tension between all three.
These duties could be considered generic to all faculties
Some people do all three quite good, or combinations thereof.

Colm Harmons statement interests me:
“One way forward for Irish institutions and their budget problems is to stop pretending all academics are equal!”
What then?

Good night

@Lefournier: “Dem Cork lads must have better things to be doing than blogging.”

They’re probably building an ark in case Inishcarra overflows again.

It would probably get a grant as a model of a small closed agricultural economy. Rather like deValera’s Ireland, but without the bishops, beer and biscuits.


Universities would be heavenly if it were not for the students! And the government.

But the two go together! A poly technic is a place to raise standards and train students in practical skills.

A university is a centre for excellence. There has long been a confusion of the two, as a uni is crammed in order to lever out put upwards but standards are necessarily lowered. All Souls has no undergrads. Ratios of staff to student are important as research is a skill in itself. Nowadays as goivernments reveal themselves to be somewhat ponzi like, they want unis to produce profit centres for “all that techno whatsit” that another uni managed around the world.

In one way this blog is a remote uni. No degree is awarded but one’s work is evident. No need for certification by a stressed lecturer. It is all set out, sp. mistakes and all. At the end there is a product a realization of breadth and depth of issues and more light amidst some heat. Free flow of ideas. Work undertaken for little material reward.

Poly technics dumb down material so it can be crammed. Product is fodder for industry. Smart economy should mean a new response from unis? Obsession with rankings just betrays bureaucratic fear of failure? A uni can only fail, by dropping standards to fit. Aiming too low.

@Michael Moore

Divide 6 billion by 6 million …………. what do you get?

Step 1: Get into the World Top Thousand ………

The real test of the quality of a region’s education system is the level of general welfare in its citizenry. The present system (at all levels) remains largely class-based and regressive – Digital Literacy is particularly poor at 1st and 2nd levels – broadband in many areas is a joke – adult education lags other EU states – Take a look at developments in India and Korea ……….. time to take investing in ‘brains’, as distinct from bricks, as the real economic imperative ………..

BackStep: Are we smart enough to get out of the present mess? No choice.
Were we stupid enough to get into it in the first place? Sure we were – hence the urgency to seriously inquire into HOW we got in to it. So lets get on with it – declare UDI on brains – and stop waiting for tribunals, or Dail committees etc ……………. Pool the evidence and resources ………. and present it in language that Joe and Joan can understand. This is the real test for quality …………… DELIVER.

@ David O’ Donnell,

your comment made me remember something. I once read an entertaining book by Michael Lewis called The New New Thing. It is about Jim Clark, founder of Netscape and a couple of other companies. Silicon Graphics was his first company, in which he employed a range of noteable computer scientists who had come up through the education system in India. The Michael Lewis book contains a very nice description of that system at some point in the story I recall. Basically, Lewis was trying to flesh out some of the sub-characters in the story, to indicate how/where Clark obtained his finest human resources.

Funny thing also, Clark got into medical science most recently and I heard from an architect who worked with Clark on a Stanford university new building, how Clark was very willing to cut through normal bureaucracy and channels at Stanford in order to get his building for medical sciences built, which he paid for. Years earlier of course, Clark, a man from a very poor background at Texas had been lucky enough to attend tuition at Stanford and work up some prototype silicon chips which became the basis for his young company SGi.

I think this is called karma.

1987: Allan Bloom,The Closing of the American Mind. 1988: Charles Sykes, ProfScam: So what’s different now? Ah yes! Moneymania.
If you can access it electronically, try a search of The Guardian newspaper: Gratzer + Research the Enemy of Scholarship + 1979 (date is missing from my file) – funny peculiar accompanying cartoon – man with a butterfly net.

Tenured and non-tenured third-level academic personnel are appointed/promoted on the basis of PhD research + pubs. Yet the same individuals do some undergrad teaching (without any qualification to undertake same) + some admin work (experience for same ???). Bit odd, in’tit. Same goes for tutors taking undergrad tutorials. Think this might be a little problematic?

The third-level research => quality nexus is a load of academic cobblers – in the best of taste of course. There are other metrics that might be applied to quantify – or should that be to rank? – third-level institutions. Unfortunately these metrics are cumbersome and open to partiality.

Better to print the mythical legend, rather than the prosaic truth. As Morgan Kelly say about stats – “You consume them at your peril”.

B Peter

@Richard: there seems to be some error with the Leiden “Green index” since TCD is 4th in the top 250 but not in the top 100 which cannot be right.
That glitch aside, where does all this debate about which is the best index lead to? I think its helpful to develop some criteria by which we might judge (at least hypothetically) different indices: to what question is a particular index informative?
I am inclined to think about index number theory. In some cases particular indices of the price level answer specific questions: how much do we have to increase income to keep utility constant, say.
So are these indices helpful for say a student from Mars who wants to know where to go? Or a rich benefactor who wants to leave her dosh to a “good university” ?
My conjecture is that different indices are useful for different purposes – and if they are not useful for any purpose then forget about them.

First, university are selected by size, then they are ranked.

Trinity is not big enough to be in the top 100, but big enough to be 4th in the top 250.

The quality of indicators indeed varies with purpose. Leiden focusses on research quality, while Shanghai focusses on prestige, and the Times on education quality.

I’m most interested in research, which is why I think Leiden is best.

Thanks for the leiden website – its a good hack at the issue, well nuanced. However like Kevin i noted the anomaly. Your explanation is fine, but doesnt make sense. Size is a very poor proxy in universities for most things. As the world and european , top 100 and 250 analyses are calculated on the same basis one would have thought that a pooled table should be calculable. There also seems to be some time mismatch

Im probably wrong in this analysis, but if I read it right one should (allowing for the fact that the world and euro analyses seem to be over overlapping but different periods) be able to roughly compare the world and european 250 datasets on the basis of the CPP/FSCm metric. If one does that, and eliminates duplicates on the basis of their lower score, then we seem to find the following “ranking”


which I take with a pinch of salt, and some schadenfreud….:)

Spreadsheet available from me if anyone cares. Its probably wrong in detail but right-ish in trend.

They show both the Top 100 and Top 250 as a methodological dig at someone else’s ranking, and to show that small can be beautiful. They should have show those results in the academic paper only, not on the public website. (This also shows why Shanghai and Times are more popular.)

Your ranking is correct. This is for all disciplines, of course. The ranking is different for economists.

The Shanghai rankings had a huge impact in France — they came as a big shock to the policy establishment. As a result major university reforms have been launched, including giving universities autonomy to decide about salaries etc.

All these rankings are in some ways helpful and in some ways silly. But I prefer the French approach of saying “we have a major problem, let’s fix it” than the TCD/UCD approach of glorying in the Times rankings which no-one can take particularly seriously.

Yes, its for the overall (whatever on earth that means), and there is I suspect as much within unit as between unit variation. Its a nice nuanced analysis they do.
Indeed. But there seems to be little governance will to actually face up to what we want, how we will deliver it, where we will deliver it, and how we will pay for it.

The ranking is certainly heavily biased towards the sciences (I suspect economics is only included because it picked up its own Nobel prize along the way). The ranking perfectly mirrors the Chinese preoccupation with the technological prowess of their universities (rather than with any wishy washy humanities stuff! 😉 ). But bearing that in mind the criteria used seem very reasonable to me. Even counting Nobel prize winners seems fair to me. There is of course the danger of small sample bias for a tiny country like ourselves and the prize itself is strongly historical and retrospective in nature (there can easily be a 20 to 30 year gap between the actual work and the awarding of the prize). But the solitary Irish scientific Nobel representative of Walton (whose work would really be more attributable to Cambridge than TCD) would probably be a fair reflection of the degree to which Irish universities have been at the cutting edge of scientific research in the 20th century. In the humanities we’ve punched far more above our weight in terms of Nobel laureates (4 in literature). It was interesting to speculate whether if this Nobel category were included in the ARWU ranking it would make much of a difference. Unfortunately not. Few of these laureates in literature have had much of a connection with our universities. Samuel Beckett is the exception having studied and taught at TCD. An honorary degree from TCD for Yeats surely couldn’t be counted! And I am not aware of any Irish university connections for George Bernard Shaw. Seamus Heaney would boost the rankings of several places including Harvard and Queen’s in Belfast but the now defunct Carysfort College would have been the only beneficiary in the Republic! 🙂

@ Finbar,

“The ranking perfectly mirrors the Chinese preoccupation with the technological prowess of their universities (rather than with any wishy washy humanities stuff! 😉 ).”

Fair observation.

I know that China produced zero architectural designers of its own until recently – they imported them. Even though China embarked on a monster building binge (that made Ireland’s look like a snack bar) China still had some problem, in being able to have a faculty for architecture.

Interestingly, from my study of the Manhattan skyscraper building booms, it appears as though the young nation of the United States had exactly the same kind of problem. The first school of architecture in the US was only established in 1860. But fifty years later, the only real architects they benefitted from had trained at the Beaux Arts at Paris, France.

The result is today, the construction industry still dominates vastly over the design professions in the US.

@ Brian Lucey,

Some of the county council offices built in the last decade in Ireland. Some noteable ones built by very talented and forward thinking ex. graduates of schools of architecture in the US.

Funny thing is though, had those professions remained in the US, they might not have had opportunities to obtain their own commissions until much later in life. Ask Frank Gehry or Peter Eisenmann, who reckon, one has to be an old man in the US before anyone will trust you with a construction budget.

@ Finbar,

I like very much the trouble you have gone to, to distinguish the humanities Nobel successes in Ireland, compared with research and science etc.

If you get an opportunity sometime, it is worth looking at that whole period in European history when the Bauhaus in the Weimar republic was broken up by the new national party in Germany. Many of the experts in the arts, applied arts, design and everything ‘modern’ ended up in the United States. People like Johannes Itten (colour, visual), Breuer, Gropius, van der Rohe, (architecture) and a whole raft of movements in high art took root on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was quite funny actually. For a finish up, many young designers and artists from Ireland ended up travelling over to the United States, in order to benefit from teaching and experience working with European masters who had moved over there.

Yeah, Europe lost out big time around then. That is before we even begin to talk about rocket scientists, mathematians. Karl Popper, Einstein, that whole group who hung around Vienna in the early 20th c.

But my point is this. I have read extensively about the various people in the US, involved at research level in much of science and technology developments in the 20th century. The distinct impression I do get, is they were very philosophical kinds of people. Even though they were hard nosed scientists and mathematicians often – they are referred to today, a lot in terms one might apply to artists or designers.

It is funny, when you get to the highest level in either science or humanities, the distinction begins to blur. What I mean is, the distinction becomes less useful as one reaches the pinnacles of achievement in either.

@Brian Lucey:
“But there seems to be little governance will to actually face up to what we want, how we will deliver it, where we will deliver it, and how we will pay for it.”

And there may be different views about who “we” are and what “we” want.


“And there may be different views about who “we” are and what “we” want.”

@ Brian J Goggin,

Yep, you nailed it. I agree. That is the big dilemma.

Lucey, Whelan, just about all economists, journalists and politicians I have read/listened to in the past 12 months are under developed thinkers, and some of them quite possibly even dangerous. I don’t agree with half of what they prescribe.

What encouraged me to take some notice of what the ‘Irish economists’ were up to, what gave me some confidence, was they are imperfect individuals working in roughly the right domain at the moment. I don’t expect all of them to be trustworthy, brilliant or even right. But some medicine roughly aimed at the right ballpark – might have better luck than the perfect medicine aimed at completely the wrong ball park.

What I have seen in this country – throughout the Bertie Ahern years – has been some great ability and some genuine talent, from both this soil and others – thrown into the action, and mis-direct-ed and therefore wasted. That is tragic and that is pointless.

At least these economists have a shot at making some small difference. Even if they do ‘something’ and it isn’t quite right, at least it is in the right ball park. There is some chance.

I could rise to the height of excellence in construction and project management, but it can never do much good, my hands are tied behind my back. I have learned that much.

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