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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 16, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    An Irish top ten university

    Chris Carpenter

    The QS World University rankings for 2011 were published last week.  There was considerable media comment,  including by the Irish Times, noting that most Irish universities were continuing their recent downward trend:  TCD has slipped down 13 places to 65;  UCD is down 20 places to 134; NUI Galway down 66 places to 298.  However UCC is up marginally up 3 places to 181,  and RTE also reported that UCC was the first Irish university to receive five gold QS stars!  Nevertheless, my own reading of the QS results shows that in fact the University of Limerick also has five such stars.  The QS star rating,  in my view is confusing: it is a new methodology “using more comprehensive indicators to those used in the rankings”.   However,  the QS star rating is an “opt-in” mechanism in which universities volunteer to participate:   for examples the universities ranked 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th in the world (Yale, University of Oxford, Imperial College London and UCL) have no QS star rating :-)

    Also last week,  many in Waterford made a renewed call to upgrade WIT to full university status.   Our Government is reputedly divided on this particular issue at this time,  with some thought to be in favor and others concerned about further dilution of the already scant national education budget.   As I understand it,  some other institutes (amongst them DIT and CIT) are also seeking university status.

    Ireland already has seven universities (DCU; NUIs Galway and Maynooth; TCD; University Colleges Cork and Dublin;  and the University of Limerick). Of these seven,  four – i.e. 57% – are in the top 300 universities in the world (according to the QS rankings)!  By contrast,  the UK has 115 universities,  with 30 in the top 300 – i.e. 26%.  The United States has 4,084 universities offering 4 year undergraduate courses;  of these,  only 69 are in the world’s top 300 – i.e. less than 2%!

    When challenged over the slippage of most of the Irish universities down this year’s rankings,  those involved have argued for an increase in funding,  including the re-introduction of fees for those who can afford to pay.   It thus seemed interesting timing that also last week UCD included an eight page special report in the Irish Times on the new UCD Science Centre.  According to the report,  this represents a €300M investment in total across a number of phases.  The first phase opened last week at a cost of €60M,  the vast bulk of which apparently came from the Irish taxpayer.  The second phase will cost €110M,  with €80M coming from the Irish taxpayer and a further €30M from private sector fund raising.

    In many universities in the United States,  it is quite common for freshmen undergraduates to be continually reminded that they are able to be in their university,  with its buildings and facilities and faculty,  largely due to the generosity of those students who have gone before them and who now,  as alumni, have given back so that a new generation may also benefit.   The message to each new student is clear:  we expect you to donate back to your alma mater during your career.   In my view,  sadly,  this message is rarely as enthusiastically delivered to freshmen in the Irish university system.   However,  even if it were,   it would probably not in fact be true:  students in Irish universities are in their university,  with its buildings and facilities and faculty,  largely due to the generosity of the Irish taxpayer and Irish society at large.   The implication should be clear:  our Irish nation has a right to expect that each student will contribute back to Irish society during their career.   Furthermore,  the Irish universities are owned by the Irish taxpayers,  and should be thus as widely accessible as possible to citizens who have the appropriate educational attainment.

    The strength of the national university system and the quality of the graduate pool underpins our economic growth.  The better the education of graduates,  the more likely that companies will undertake ventures which add high value,  and the less internationally mobile these ventures will be (one of the most disturbing aspects of last week’s announcement about the closure of the Irish operations of Talk Talk last week is the apparent ease at which this venture can be relocated to a lower cost location).  Equally,  our graduates should be mentored to be entrepreneurial,  articulate and creative.  Also last week,  Professor Brian MacCraith and President of DCU announced his “Generation 21″ initiative to ensure graduates are employable no matter how uncertain the future:  each student will develop an “e-CV” as they progress through DCU,  auditing their learning and character develop.

    Cultivating confidence and eloquence in students is one of the major benefits of the Science Gallery (of which I am founding Chairman) at TCD.  The Gallery brings together scientific discovery and artistic expressiveness,  reminiscent of the great natural philosophers and artists,  which science’s specialized narrow focus has lost today. Our student mediator programme fosters students to be articulate and expressive, able to explain themselves and technology to the public visitors to the Gallery exhibitions.  Employers have been noticing the quality of students who have been trained as mediators at the Gallery.

    Whilst employers do consider the QS rankings and character,  employers are increasingly using other techniques to evaluate graduates as I’ll explain just below.   Rather,  the QS ranking system is intended for international students,  providing a tool to help them chose a top university appropriate to their budget.   The business of international students can be a significant addition to a university income.  This business used to be largely a one-way traffic of Asian students heading to western universities,  but today the picture has considerably changed.  While there are 440,000 Chinese students abroad,  China is targeting 500,000 international students to come to its own universities.  There are now more “international” students taking degree courses from UK universities in their own home countries,  than there are international students actually coming to the UK:  there are some 340,000 students attending branch campuses of UK universities overseas.   Some surprising new international university locations have emerged,  such as Germany.  For example the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg and the Technische Universität München are both higher than any Irish university in the QS rankings:  both have undergraduate and postgraduate study through English, and at very low cost to EU nationals.

    A further trend is towards distance learning and online education.   This term,  for the first time ever,   anyone can register and attend (live over the internet) certain undergraduate degree courses offered by Stanford University’s Department of Computer Science.  Online students are expected to submit assignments and attend online examinations,  and will receive a certificate of attainment at the end.  Announced just a few weeks ago,  so far over 100,000 students have registered worldwide.

    One may question the value of online and distance learning,  and perhaps even more so the large portfolio of online podcasts of educational material available,  compared to a traditional university teaching.  However,  given the internationalization of global business and education,  it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to accurately judge the calibre of graduate candidates from so many different universities.   One obvious way to overcome this is to run examinations as a part of the interview process:  regardless of the degree status and university ranking,  or even whether a candidate actually attended any physical campus but instead studied online,   a graduate can be put directly to the test.   Many professional bodies – in engineering, law, accounting and so on – already insist on their own independent examination systems:  the move to online study may accelerate such assessment mechanisms for many employers.

    Where does this all leave the Irish third (undergraduate) and fourth (post-graduate) level education system ?  Whilst 57% of Irish universities are in the top 300 QS ranked worldwide,  none are in the top 10 or even the top 50.  Online study (such as the new Stanford model) increasingly available from the top 10,  or even the top 50,  taken together with independent assessment by employers and professional bodies,  threaten established lower-tier universities.  The emergence of English as the teaching language of choice in non-native English but top universities,  puts further pressure on the lower-tiers.

    In my view,  the Irish national system must make every effort to have one Irish university amongst the top 10 in the world.  Given that this top-10 university is likely to be substantially funded by the Irish taxpayer,  this university should be widely available to all appropriately attained students in Ireland (together with international students).  Thus,  the emergence of online access is not only a threat,   but an opportunity.   If we had a single Irish university amongst the top 10 in the world,   with the very best faculty and teaching available,  then we can ensure its education is available nationwide through a combination of online access,  but also augmented by “branch” campuses as need be in further locations across Ireland.   I believe there is a compelling argument and urgency for a focus of our taxpayers resources into just a single Irish university,  having online access and a branch network,  with the specific aim of nationwide availability to an Irish world top 10 university.

    • Norman Wyse says:

      There is no doubt that university rankings have gone from being a curiosity 5 years ago to being a highly influential and disruptive force in higher education today. Like all rankings: FIFA rankings, tennis seedings, list of wealthiest men in the world, competitiveness indices, university rankings have become an obsession to those in and around education. There is something compelling about rankings and both universities and employers (allegedly) appear fixated.

      There are a number of big questions that nobody seems to be asking, however:
      1) What is the added value to the economy and society of bringing a university into the top 200, 100, 50, 10, etc.
      2) What kind of cost does it require to bring universities up to these benchmarks?
      3) Are the predicted gains greater than this cost?
      4) How sustainable are maintaining high rankings in the face of increasing worldwide interest in climbing league tables (and the emergence of massive universities in India and Asia)?
      5) What are the costs of targeting league table metrics over perhaps addressing university development in a more organic, sensitive way?

      Regarding the upgrade of WIT in Waterford, this move would potentially achieve a cost effective, sustainable and demonstrable improvement to the Irish higher education system for a small fraction of the cost of TCD, UCD or UCC chasing the dragon of league table placings.

    • Peter Davis says:

      Interesting read, but I see no credible argument for creating a top-10 university in Ireland. Could we really imagine beating out Stanford (#11 in QS this year), even with heroic efforts over a decade or two? And make it open to all the taxpayers of the country? Nobody has ever done that before. Even if we had the China-scale resources and massive good fortune, what would be the value, as opposed to investing in many universities, or companies, or primary school or anything else? It’s no wonder these rankings are so despised when they drive otherwise clear-thinking leaders into a points-race style fantasy.


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