Universities and world rankings


Sir Prof Kathleen James-Chakraborty is quite right to note the distorting impact upon Irish universities of their current fixation with world rankings (Letters, June 11th).

It has resulted in efforts to game the system in various ways. Irish universities collectively have been at pains to blame the Government for a general slide in the rankings of Irish universities in recent years: it is all the State’s – and by extension the taxpayers’ – fault for capping undergraduate fees, and for not putting lots more money into the university system, particularly for scientific and technological research. Decline will gather pace, and the worldwide reputation of Irish education will be destroyed once and for all, unless far more national resources are given to Irish universities. International rankings are routinely invoked to make precisely that point.

This week’s release of the QS rankings for 2021 therefore poses a problem for Irish universities.How can significantly improved rankings for Trinity (now poised agonisingly at 101st in the world), UCD, Galway, Cork and Limerick be welcomed, without subverting the core collective argument that a chronic lack of State funding is the cause of accelerating and possibly irreversible decline?

There is, however, a wider problem with university rankings. It is that these exercises place no value whatsoever on freedom of inquiry and discourse.

Take China, where the practice of generating international annual rankings developed, as an example.

It is unimaginable that anyone in a university there would propose, let alone undertake, a dispassionate, credible, demographic analysis of regions such as Tibet, or Xinjiang, where populations have been radically altered through government-ordained migration to alter the ethnic balance, just as happened in the Baltic states after absorption into the Soviet Union in 1940.

I could instance further examples by discipline and issue far far closer to home, even within the relatively well-protected university systems of the European Union. Just look at what is happening in Hungary.

The State should advise Irish universities not to co-operate in international rankings exercises until academic freedom of enquiry and discourse are included and appropriately weighted as explicit criteria. What chance is there of that? – Yours, etc,


Department of History,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.