Irish Universities: The fall in the rankings of Irish universities in world university rankings has inevitably resulted in calls for increased funding and while that is an issue which should be considered on its own merits, how realistic is it to expect funding to become world class universities?
In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-2015 with research data supplied by Thomson Reuters, Trinity College dropped from 129th to 138th rank this year while UCD (University College Dublin) dropped out of the top 200 to the 226th-250th range.
In 2010, Trinity College was at 77th and UCD at 94th. Trinity was at 43rd in 2009.
The Irish Universities Association says that in the university sector reductions in exchequer funding together with increases in student numbers has seen a decline in the standard unit of resource for an undergraduate student of 20.2% over the period 2008 – 2014. "The decline in the recurrent grant standard unit of resource was 68.1% while the student contribution increased by 203%."
The methodology for the 2014-2015 World University Rankings is identical to that used since 2011-2012.
The top ten ranking universities in the world are American and British with Asian institutions making big progress in the top 200.
Stanford University is ranked fourth, University of Cambridge fifth and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sixth.
The US has 15 of the top 20 positions while 24 Asian universities are in the top 200 list, a rise of four from 2013.
The University of Tokyo and the National University of Singapore are ranked 23rd and 25th respectively. Seoul National University is at 50th after falling from 44th last year while two Chinese mainland universities, Peking and Tsinghua universities, are in 48th and 49th place.
Prof Vinny Cahill, dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin, commented: “Our universities are sliding because we can’t compete on funding. On a per academic basis, Trinity’s annual budget is 45% lower than that of the average top 200 university.”
He added: "with new and far-better-funded universities in Asia-Pacific storming ahead, it's no longer enough to slightly improve your score."
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".
In terms of economic growth and sustained stability Austria is one of the developed world's most successful small economies.
The unemployment rate at 4.7% is the lowest in the EU 28 and it has been low for decades.
In the rankings Austria's University of Vienna is at 182nd while according to the OECD's 'Education at a Glance 2014' [pdf] in 2012 at 22%, the number of 25-34 year olds with a university degree was the lowest of the developed world and compared with 66% in South Korea and 49% in Ireland.
Austria like Germany has a well-established apprenticeship system that has dual work-education learning.
Denmark's first ranking is at 121st, Norway's at 186th and Israel is at 188th.
Last year marked Israel’s fifth and sixth winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in under a decade.
Times Higher Education says the quest to create “world-class” universities has become something of a global obsession in the past decade as governments across the world have put the development of competitive higher education and research systems at the heart of their national economic strategies. In Russia, for example, President Vladimir Putin has made it a key policy objective to move five Russian universities into the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings by 2020. In Japan, Shinzo Abe, prime minister, has said that there should be 10 Japanese universities in the world top 100 by 2023.
Times Higher Education says the top 200 represents the top 1% of the world’s higher education institutions.
The average top 200 university:
Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, said: “Top-quality universities come in many different shapes and sizes, and there is no single model of excellence. With this in mind, the THE World University Rankings are carefully designed to capture excellence in teaching and research against a university’s own mission and its own unique profile.
“But this new information, revealed for the first time from the rankings database, provides some clear pointers for any academic leader or any government serious about building world-class universities.”
Baty continued: “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.”
Ireland is a conservative place and in September 2012, a UCD-Trinity College university merger proposal in a leaked draft report triggered a rapid reaction from various interests to kill the chicken in the egg. It was as if a fatwa had been issued by the elite. There would not even be a discussion on it.
The Irish Government has spent an inflation adjusted €24bn on science policy in a decade, which is welcomed by universities and business lobby groups but there is no credible analyses of its effectiveness.
Less than one third of IDA Ireland clients spend on R&D, there is little research done by foreign-owned firms that merits patenting and wonder why the Department of Enterprise would try to deliberately delay publication of the Irish Patents Office annual report for the quiet holiday month of August?
Despite public pay cuts in 2010, 'The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030' report which was published in January 2011 stated: "Salaries account for three-quarters of total current expenditure on higher education in Ireland - - compared with an international average of two-thirds. This means that Irish higher education operates with lower (nonpay) recurrent expenditure than is typical in other countries."
Ireland can only afford one university at best that could aspire to top rank recognition.
It needs to first sort out the funding system for higher education rather than focusing on world class aspirations that may have no real economic benefit.
In Ireland one of the problems with the system is that academics who are in the media every day discussing a wide range of issues but it's rare if at all, for them to talk about the area they know best: the positives and negatives of where they work.
Traditionally, dissent is not welcome by insiders or institutions in Ireland and for career advancement or to avoid personal blowback, going with the flow usually pays dividends
University presidents want prestige but with no personal risk.
1. American firms that dominate Irish manufacturing and tradeable services prefer to do overseas research in places like Israel, China and India.
2. Services be it ICT or financial focus on administration positions.
3. Ireland has only a small number of large indigenous exporters.
5. A venture capital-backed science startup with potential would be sold to a bigger overseas firm with promoters and early investors doing well but Joe Taxpayer paying the tab. Google has bought 150 startups since 2004.
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