Distorting effects of university rankings


Sir, – The advent over this past decade of world university rankings is the most unhelpful and damaging intrusion into the international world of higher education (“Trinity College climbs up global university rankings”, News, September 6th).

The predominant criterion of these rankings is the performance of the university in research, as measured by its research publications in international academic journals. The rankings say almost nothing of the universities’ performances in teaching and education. The rankings are simply commercial ventures and there is no evidence that quantifies, either from academic metrics or philosophical analyses, what value they are contributing to higher education.

Their main effect is their influence on the choice of university by wealthy migrant students, typically from China and India, who have no difficulty in paying the annual fees of $50,000 in the top-ranking universities. This is assisted by the unfortunate situation whereby the attraction of these high fee-paying students has become a core and seemingly irreversible component in the financial management of universities everywhere, including Ireland.

A secondary and more damaging effect of these rankings lies in the competition they promote between teaching and research in the mission of the university. A young academic joining a university will quickly realise that the way up the academic promotion ladder, and international academic status, is through research rather than teaching, and the temptation for a lecturer must be that, having given the prescribed lectures, to close the door and get on with the research and their publications. It is a temptation that most academic lecturers do not yield to, and they maintain the balance between their teaching and research, and derive great pride and satisfaction in their interaction with students within and outside the lecture theatre.

Research, of course, is important and vital to effective teaching, but it is secondary in the true mission of the university, a message more important today than ever before.

The important 1963 UK Robbins report on higher education defined the mission of a university as being “to promote the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists, but rather cultivated men and women, and to maintain research in balance with teaching”. These rankings have greatly upset this balance and annually are making it worse, and the students are the potential sufferers. This teaching mission of universities was discussed eloquently in John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University”, some 100 years before Robbins, when he was the first president of the Catholic University of Ireland, which later became our University College Dublin.

Each university has no choice and effectively must participate in these rankings, and it is a forlorn utopian hope that our Irish universities will persuade the European University Association, which represents many hundreds of universities across the greater Europe, to unilaterally agree to boycott all these rankings, which I believe it should.

I believe too that, apart from within the top-ranked universities, there would be widespread agreement across the academic world that this would be a good move, but also acknowledgement that it would not be possible. The rankings are now a world sport in which universities everywhere must compete. They have no choice. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus,

University College Dublin,

Dublin 4.