Why university rankings are flawed

Irish colleges should focus on maximising students’ potential instead of chasing league tables

 

University rankings are highly influential. They play a key role in attracting international students, research funding and investment. They also send governments and institutions into a near-frenzy if colleges rise or fall significantly from year to year.

But they are deeply flawed. A new report by the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute has found rankings measure research activity to the exclusion of almost everything else. What is arguably their most important activity – the quality of tuition, notably at undergraduate level – is omitted.

The institute’s research indicates rankings fail to identify the “best” universities, given the numerous functions higher education institutions fulfil that are not measured. It says it is unwise to give tables so much weight given the data used is inherently unreliable.

Rankings are a successful and lucrative business model. Many of the private firms which compile them offer advice – for a hefty fee – on how to move up their rankings. Due to the commercial interest in maintaining position and competition among universities, their influence is unlikely to decline anytime soon.

It is important to keep this in mind when asking whether rankings tell us anything meaningful about the state of higher education in Ireland. Our top universities have been sliding down rankings in recent years, prompting growing concern about international standing.

University presidents say this is linked to rival countries forging ahead through greater investment in higher education. Funding for Irish higher education has fallen sharply over recent years while student numbers have risen significantly. That is beyond dispute. The problem is set to worsen as much of the sector is now on the cusp of a financial crisis and a new funding model is urgently needed.

In deciding how to fund higher education on a sustainable basis, decisions based on evidence and not rankings are needed. Governing bodies and policy-makers should focus on their core function: maximising the potential of students. This is because it is the right thing to do, and not because it may improve their position in any league table.

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