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News : Innovation Last Updated: Jan 14, 2015 - 4:00 AM


Irish Universities: Ready to change and world class at what price?
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Oct 3, 2014 - 7:41 AM

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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 13 performance indicators are grouped into five areas:

  • Teaching: the learning environment (worth 30% of the overall ranking score);
  • Research: volume, income and reputation (worth 30%);
  • Citations: research influence (worth 30%);
  • Industry income: innovation (worth 2.5%);
  • International outlook: staff, students and research (worth 7.5%).

The top ten ranking universities in the world are American and British with Asian institutions making big progress in the top 200.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) hold the top rank for the fourth straight year followed by Harvard University in second place and University of Oxford in third.

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.

The University of Hong Kong is 43rd in the world, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology rose from 57th to 51st.

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."

World Class

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.

But Times Higher Education says 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”.]

Times Higher Education says the top 200 represents the top 1% of the world’s higher education institutions.

The average top 200 university:

  • Has a total annual income of $751,139 per academic (compared with $606,345 for a top 400 university)
  • Has a student-to-staff ratio of 11.7:1 (compared with 12.5:1 for a top 400 university)
  • Hires 20% of its staff from abroad (compared with 18% for a top 400 university)
  • Has a total research income of $229,109 per academic (compared with $168,739 for a top 400 university)
  • Publishes 43% of all its research papers with at least one international co-author (compared with 42% at a top 400 university)
  • Has a student body made up of 19% international students (compared with 16% at a top 400 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.

Seán Flynn, the late Irish Times education editor, reported:

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and three university presidents last night moved to distance themselves from a controversial report recommending a merger of University College Dublin with Trinity College Dublin, and other radical changes. Mr Quinn said such a merger was 'neither feasible nor desirable,' while key elements of the report 'would not be acceptable to Government.'

"The report, prepared by some of the most distinguished figures in international higher education, has been effectively buried, according to education sources."

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?

Finfacts 2014: Irish resident patenting not suggestive of 'world class knowledge economy'

Finfacts 2013: Irish Innovation: Evidence of science policy failure mounts

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.

4. Food research rather than nanotechnology is likely to be a much bigger benefit to the economy.

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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