World university rankings

This is one way to try to boost your position in the world university rankings.

Another would be to shift admittedly very scarce resources from administrative to frontline staff, so as to keep class sizes under control; remember that the university’s core function was always to provide an excellent undergraduate education, and value those members of staff whose dedication made that possible; and value the outputs of research, instead of the financial inputs into it.

27 replies on “World university rankings”

Meantime, is undergrad education in many areas being replaced by online education – where there’ll probably be similar return on scale as in other online businesses. And Masters level will likely get “eaten” too. e.g.

Class sizes don’t matter as much. Costs are hugely reduced for university and students. Excellent educational outcomes will be achieved with a bit of practice in almost all disciplines. Excellent staff will teach more people than they ever taught before.

And research? Well, now, that’s an interesting question.

Another solution to improving a university’s ranking would be to improve the calibre of its academic staff and to create an atmosphere that was welcoming to and encouraging of viewpoints right across the spectrum, particularly those that challenge the current consensus. This was certainly the case when I was at Queens University Belfast from 1966 to 1972. However, it is not the way that Irish universities have been moving in recent years. Quite the reverse. Irish universities (like American universities) are now increasingly dominated by political correctness and fascist liberal groupthink, with no dissent from prevailing liberal orthodoxies tolerated. This applies both to the academic staff and the students unions. It is now more and more common for student organisations that are not considered ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ to be refused registration. Saint Trinian’s College Dublin seems to be particularly badly affected by this disease. Last year the board announced that they were removing the Bible from the university crest. Never mind that it had been there for 500 years and was an integral part of the university’s history and traditions. The imperative was to put the boot into Christianity and appear trendy. Political correctness gone mad. NO wonder its slumping in world rankings.

I obviously don’t know if there is any connection, but some of the best world-class Irish academics have departed Irish academia in recent years, such as Kevin O’Rourke himself, and more recently Philip Lane. To get an insight into the calibre of some of those remaining, one only needs to read their contributions to Twitter, with juvenile Marxist-Leninism and virulent anti-Catholicism, that would have been barely acceptable in Ballymena LOL circa 1955, being all the rage.

The priority in Ireland should not be to indulge the aspirations of university presidents to run world class universities.

It should be to address the deficiencies in the whole education system including third level, the poor skills of the adult population and the failure to develop a dual education and work system for youth who are not motivated by traditional academic subjects in school.

The World Bank said in a 2013 report

In cross-country comparisons it is generally found that countries maintaining a substantial dual apprenticeship system, i.e. Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, exhibit a much smoother transition from school to work, low NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) rates, low youth unemployment and below average repeated unemployment spells than other countries.

Modern apprenticeship typically covers a wide range of jobs.

Universities themselves complain about the poor numeracy and literacy skills of some of their students.

The overuse of ‘world class’ in Ireland has made it a bullshit term, vividly illustrated by an October 2010 Irish Times report on the discredited public skills agency titled: “Fás board to agree plan for new ‘world-class’ skills body”.

With the exception of Switzerland with ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at rank 9 of the QS rankings — Einstein was a student there and later on the staff — and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne at 14, the rankings of the universities in Europe’s most dynamic small economies are not high.

Denmark’s first 3 are at 69/107/112; Sweden 70/92/102; Finland 96/139/233; Norway begins at 135; Austria begins at 153 just ahead of UCD.

The Netherlands is at 55/64/94 and Belgium 82/124/149.

Austria has one of the lowest levels of graduates in the 25-34 age group in Europe and poor Germany begins at 60 while Ecole normale supérieure, Paris, traditionally seen as a training ground for leading French policy makers, gets a 23rd ranking — they may know their philosophy but rating their record is another matter!

Big countries through their public and private sectors can afford to fund lavish centres of learning but Times Higher Education (THE) has said that the characteristics that distinguish a world-class university have been elusive.

As Philip Altbach, the director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, wrote in a much-quoted paper “The costs and benefits of world-class universities,”which was published in 2003 in the journal International Higher Education: “Every country wants a world-class university. No country feels it can do without one. The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get one.”

Almost a decade later, Jun Li, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote (in “World-class higher education and the emerging Chinese model of the university,” a paper published in the journal Prospects in 2012), that the very concept of a world-class university is still “ambiguous, uncertain, and contested, varying from one context to the next.”

Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, has said:

First, you need serious money. Significant financial resources are essential to pay the salaries required to attract and retain the leading scholars and to build the facilities needed. Second, providing an intimate and intensive teaching environment for students, where they can expect to truly engage with leading academic staff, can really help. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a world-class university must be genuinely international. It must be a magnet for the planet’s most talented staff and students, wherever they happen to come from; it must bring people together from a range of different cultures and backgrounds to tackle shared global challenges; and it must work and think across national borders.

Much of the world ranking is total nonsense. For example, comparing the LSE (which usually scores very highly) with Harvard, Oxford or or Chicago, when LSE is virtually confined to the Social Sciences and the others cover just about everything. Talk about comparing apples and oranges.

Kevin’s mention of research funding is interesting. Academics are increasingly hired and promoted on their ability to generate funds. These are inputs not outputs. The older traditional (and intellectually demanding) way of assessing the research output, i.e. the quantity and quality of published work is in danger of being displaced by the funding fetish. It also favours those in the hard sciences who need huge research funds to do their work over mere economists and mathematicians who need just good brains and good internet access. There are other ways to incentivise the generation of funding if you want to do that.

Regarding Irish universities, try looking at the websites of the relevant Economics (or business) Departments/Schools, in particular at the research profiles of academic staff. The results are interesting, and for some institutions quite shocking.

Presumably the teaching in a “world class university” would be “state of the art” and the whole institution would be “fit for purpose”.

Ireland recently established the highest property prices in the world quickly followed by the greatest bank crash in the history of mankind. DIT Bolton Street deserves special mention- it provided many of the distinguished property valuers, without whose ingenious skills it’s doubtful if either of these two world records could have been achieved.
Hats off to all concerned.

Minor point:

Most of the ‘world class eejits’ who wrecked the state while in political power, or in advisory positions to power, or in powerful managerial or directorship positions in financial sector, in recent years were/are [they haven’t gone away u know] graduates of TCD and UCD.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation … saw’ll roight so!

Education system, regressive, is based on ‘class’; no substantial effort made to lift the lower echelons in conservative, ‘nice’, conservative, middle class, regressive, conservative institutions.

I got that email from TCD and just thought it was a bit odd and deleted it. Online surveys? Are they really relied on for rankings?

And do we need to have a conversation about whether or not half the students in college should be there at all? Everyone has the right to go to college, but that doesn’t mean the government needs to provide a college place for every post leaving certificate students. Cut off points cut off those not able for it. And aren’t class sizes part of the rankings? less is more and all that….

and that’s before you get to the over production of PhD’s.

Also, I’m tired of business people demanding that the state pays to deliver fully trained workers. How about businesses accept that they need to train people to do certain jobs (and yes, pay them while they’re at it – none of this American intern arseology).

And JtO is right about PC colleges. All this no-platforming for guest speakers with supposedly unacceptable views and the “mandatory sexual consent classes”? demanded not by authoritarian college bureaucrats but by students?

What’s happened to students? I was talking to a post-grad recently who told me she had taken notes of something a lecturer said that in her view was racist so she could complain. I said what did he say? She said he was against burkas and thought they were dangerous for public security and oppressed women. Huh? That’s racist? Poor Philip Roth had it right and such a long time ago.

Wouldn’t have happened in my day 😉

oh a final word – as a humble history graduate. TCD probably can’t be “world-class” in say, AI, but it can in Irish history. But I get the feeling that if stuffy historians can’t pull in fancy research grants then they suffer from under funding. Are we funding the right things to put us up the rankings?

Quelle surprise – the university rankings get gamed and polluted!

Goodhart’s Law states ‘….. once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.’

The way many universities seem to have responded to the new industry of ranking them echoes what occurred when pension fund consultancies started moving into the process of selection of fund managers.

Clumsy attempts to quantify qualitative things.

Do you want the students or not? Yes? Then dance.

Are there targets yet within universities these days for % of staff to be foreign, so as to boost how “international” and therefore “world class” they are, or are the recruiters just aware of the scoring system but not influenced by it?


Here is an alternative format. Wouldn’t be too difficult to crowd-source something for TCD and UCD and tag it on:

Any economics dept anywhere teaching the collapse of neoliberalism.? Might not get ranked but would at least be intellectually honest. Monthly Review could do the coursework. How many undergrads have read Minsky or Fisher?

In Nov 2013 Trinity College announced plans for a €”€70 million project involving a new Trinity School of Business, co-located with an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub, as part of efforts to drive a culture of job creation across the campus and in Dublin city centre. The project will support a growing entrepreneurial culture among Trinity’s students and faculties, drive job creation in the city centre, and help position Dublin as global node for innovation and startup enterprises.”

A global node — who wouldn’t be for this goal and those words innovation and entrepreneurship, like world-class, are popular in the lexicon of bullshit merchants. :mrgreen:

There were almost 2,000 full-time professors of entrepreneurship in the US according to 2014 membership data from the Academy of Management. This number has grown as the startup rate has fallen sharply since the 1980s. The share of employment accounted for by young firms up to 5 years old has dipped by almost 30% over 30 years.

There is no evidence that universities can raise the entrepreneurship level just as Enda Kenny pandering to lobby groups to cut the capital gains tax rate to 10%, would have no impact in raising Irish entrepreneurship — the lowest corporate and social security taxes in Western Europe + 60 years of public supports, has had limited impact.

Universities want business funding but Irish business (foreign-owned + domestic) is not keen for example in funding scientific research.

In 2013 a study by Times Higher Education found that business funding was lowest in Ireland among 30 countries — companies were investing the equivalent of €75,000 (£62,780; $97,900) in each researcher in the South Korea to carry out work in innovation and research on their behalf. Singapore was in second place, bringing in an average of €64,000 (£54,462; $84,500) per academic, with the Netherlands in third €55,000 (£46,921; $72,800). The US was in 14th position, with industry contributing nearly four times less to its academic researchers (£16,628 or $25,800 per person) than in Korea, according to the index, which was based on data from the world’s top 400 universities as assessed by The World University Rankings compiled with Thomson Reuters data. The UK was in just 26th place, attracting €10,000 (£8,572; $13,300) per researcher from industry.

At the very bottom, Irish academics got an average of just over €6,000 (£5,200;  $8,300) from business and that was before Elan was asset stripped and sold to US firm.

Collaborations announced by the Irish government typically involve the taxpayer funding most of the cost.

Universities dangle the prospect of commercialisation of research to get funding from politicians but the truth is that the record is very poor.

The OECD says:

Very few universities are successful at commercialising inventions that they’ve patented. In Europe, only 10% of universities account for 85% of the total income generated by inventions.

In the US in 2012, a year very much in line with the ten-year trends in this sector, the top 5% of earners (8 universities) took 50% of the total licensing income of the university system; and the top 10% (16 universities) took 70%.

Annual licensing revenue in Ireland is less than €1m.

In summary, university diversification has only been a success for a small number internationally and Irish universities need insiders to develop the courage to publicly challenge the little emperors in their midst.

Some Irish journalists hail what is termed the ‘new politics’ but while it’s a good move to reform the Dáil procedures, there is no evidence that TDs are interested in these policy issues that require bold alternatives to existing failures. 🙁


Love it! Think Edinburgh sounds the best. Sloans with no self-awareness. Lucky bastards.

I should say I went to Trinners. It’s the best 🙂


“Clumsy attempts to quantify qualitative things.”

An awful lot of this about … creating illlusions …. the fetish with ‘number’ ….

… hence the ontologically challenged nature of much of academia …. especially Physics_Envy in the social sciences including economics …. and investment analysis …. “Irish GDP”, Debt ratios, and of course, Fitch, Moody et al., IP ‘valuations’ etc, transfer pricing etc … and Fairy Tales from the ECB(undesbanke) …. not forgetting “De Recovery” …

Rather than attempting to quantify … one first gets into the lifeworld of the area and some “understanding” may emerge in conversations ….

X-Minister Quinn understands this …. hence his attempt to reform the Junior Cert so as to introduce some critical independent thinking ability …. teacher unions remain fixated with number and grades …. and not a qualitative comment on such students anywhere to be found …..

@Sarah Carey

Class origin, and not ability, is the prime determinant of education level reached in Ireland. FACT. Historical Fact.

Colm MacC:
Of course Goodhart’s law applies, especially to the counting of research publications, etc.
But what is one to do? Should we abandon all attempts to rank institutions and revert to the self-serving ethos that prevailed in the old days when we were led to believe that UCD was as good as the best Oxbridge colleges and of course better than those upstart American universities?

I agree with the general sentiment of the post, but not specifically with the idea of using scarce resources to lower class sizes, at least not in all cases. It depends upon the context of the university and lecture topic, but sometimes large lectures, carefully organized and well-taught, are better for students than small classes which are taught more casually and without the same course preparation set-up costs invested by the lecturer. This is particularly the case for more analytical topics, e.g., financial economics.


There has always been a tension between research and teaching. With university rankings and social media there is now rather more respect for the student experience than there used to be. It was often the case that there were some very accomplished academics installed at top flight universities who a) would regard lecturing as a rather resented interruption of their research and b) whose communication skills were often inversely proportional to their research prowess. Often they would have written a book which they would insist upon all their students buying as the course book, even though there would be better written ones available.

There were honourable exceptions of course, but the maxim that you will learn more from your fellow students than you will from your lecturers was more and more true the brighter the students and the geekier the staff – ie, generally, at the ‘best’ universities.

Lectures, some subjects would have more than twenty per week, could just be replaced by youtube for many subjects since most of the effort from the students’ point of view has tended to be hurriedly scribbling down notes to read through later. A pause button, and the opportunity it provides to actually think rather than scrawl would for many subjects outweigh the opportunity to ask direct questions at the time.

Youtube (featuring good communicators rather than whichever researcher’s turn it is) plus tutorials plus discussion among bright students might be the model. Academic staff and institutions’ selling point really should concentrate on the second and third of those respectively, since the internet is and will be populated with appropriate lectures for undergrads.

These days, because of the internet, discussion doesn’t even have to happen in the college bar.

@Peter Stapleton

We don’t need rankings. You want to know which universities are the best? Follow the money. The richest universities are the best universities. The fortunes of all state universities rise and fall with their funding.

Wealth and the freedom given to academics (not only free time but the freedom to govern the university that they comprise) are the two characteristics of the best universities. Those in government (not here, obviously) who attended such universities are playing a contemptible cynical game, pretending not to know what makes a great university even though they’ve been to them. They have no problem instituting corporate-style managerialism and an exclusively vocational focus in the universities that are meant for the great unwashed. But they know full well that they would never send their kids to “those places.”

Rankings are an exercise in trying to avoid this obvious truth: to con people into believing what they very much want to believe: for example, that their state universities are ‘underperforming’ rather than simply underfunded and organised entirely inappropriately.

A few years ago I came into possession of a spreadsheet showing what percentage of staff at the various Irish universities were academic (and researchers) vs. non-academic. It was already mind boggling then (60% non-academic). One can only imagine what it is now. Meanwhile, at my university, our President sends out a weekly email to all staff in which he talks at length about who got how much in outside grants but never has so much as one word to say about who published what research or who is getting great reviews in prestigious publications. Only the measurable counts.

And then there’s the registrar. He writes sentences that make assembly language look transparent. Here, have a taste (verbatim):

Strategic Initiative 6 is concerned with consolidating and supporting efforts across our community to enhance agility and effectiveness in university process improvement, thereby continuously furthering value for the UCD community and process beneficiaries whilst simultaneously empowering faculty and staff to proactively engage in continuous process improvement initiatives.

Try to imagine the enthusiasm this sort of thing generates among academic staff…

@ernie Ball
Is that quote from the Registrar for real? If so, things are worse than I feared.

@David O’Donnell

Yes, class is determining issue. But that needs to be dealt with separately from crudely increasing the number of college places.


some fair points. One of my professors said he didn’t think teaching and researching could be done well together and recommended taking time off from teaching while researching and visa versa.

I’m not so sure about watching youtube. It’s pretty passive. (I’ve done some courses on Coursera etc) Where I really learned was a) in tutorials when there was no escape from notice and b) having a light lecture schedule but plenty of essays/dissertations with a detailed one-on-one post mortem.
In other words, a good balance between solitary work + teaching and guidance.

A great lecturer in a wonderful thing and the number in the lecture probably doesn’t matter too much. But in a tutorial class size is an issue and for feedback on written work, one on one essential.

There’s an ad for some private college on the radio that boasts that it really listens to its students. I always think -but why would you listen to the students? They don’t know anything. The students are supposed to listen to the teachers.

@ Peter Stapleton

Yes, the quote from the Registrar is real. It was part of an email sent to all staff.

Lower class sizes is probably beside the point in the future. Online techniques will change everything. University teaching will not be done using didactic technology unchanged (essentially) since the 16th century. Undergrad and masters teaching is going to be a different industry in a few years.

Some classes requiring practical hands-on activity sessions (medicine, sculpting, mechanical engineering) will still require at least some on-site time, but not necessarily as it’s done today.

And the provision of teaching on new tech will probably undo huge chunks of what universities are.

Research is going to require some more interesting solutions.

Oh – if anyone’s a skeptic on soft sciences, there’s a twitter account you HAVE to see.

Then there’s the following particularly egregious example of semi-literate horsepucky. Again, this from an email to all staff from The Director of the “innovation Academy,” one of the central institutions in the content-free University of the future. In the future, we will do away with all those old fuddy-duddy disciplines (“discipline” is far too Victorian) and replace them with Centres of Innovation, Centres of Excellence, Centres of Leadership, Centres of Entrepreneurship, and Centres of Disruption. We’re still undecided on whether to have Centres of Intelligence. Anyway, the process has already begun. Not only do we have an “Innovation Academy” (clearly history and irony are not something these people are acquainted with; the idea of an academy of innovation being an oxymoron in historical terms), didn’t I see that the former Chemistry building now has a sign in front of it advertising the “UCD Centre for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery.” But I digress. Herewith, the claptrap whose author of which is most certainly on a six-figure salary:

Innovation Academy UCD

Dear Colleague,

We are now accepting applications from UCD academic staff for UCD’s Professional Certificate and Professional Diploma for Entrepreneurial Educators.

As an educator would you relish the opportunity to share best practice and explore new ways to enhance learning, to reflect, refresh and to grow your leadership capacity?

Entrepreneurial educators combine empathy, creativity, action research and leadership to empower their learners and continuously strive to improve their own practice as educators.

Would you like to connect with a network of other like-minded educators and meet influencers and change makers in education in Ireland and internationally? Are you intrigued by how our understanding of how we learn has changed since we were students ourselves, and how this is influencing education around the world?

Here I am reminded of a version of Zizek’s trilemma as it applies to the contemporary Irish university. According to this trilemma, one can be any two of the following three things, but one cannot be all three:

1) A supporter of university management
2) Honest
3) Intelligent

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