Friday, December 16, 2016

A new Super-University for Ireland?

University rankings have become extremely influential over the last few years. This is not entirely a bad thing. The initial publication of the Shanghai rankings in 2003, for example, exposed the pretensions of many European universities revealing just how far behind they had fallen in scientific research.  It also showed China how far it had to go to achieve scientific parity with the West.

Unfortunately, rankings have also had malign effects. The THE and QS world rankings have acquired a great deal of respect, trust, even reverence that may not be entirely deserved. Both introduced significant methodological changes in 2015 and THE has made further changes in 2016 and the consequence of this is that there have been some remarkable rises and falls within the rankings that have had a lot of publicity but have little to do with any real change in quality.

In addition, both QS and THE have increased the number of ranked universities which can affect the mean score for indicators from which the processed scores given to the public are derived. Both have surveys that can be biased and subjective. Both are unbalanced: QS with a 50 % weighting for academic and employer surveys and THE with field and year normalised citations plus a partial regional modification with an official weighting of 30% (the modification means that everybody except the top scorer gets a bonus for citations). The remarkable rise of Anglia Ruskin University to parity with Oxford and Princeton in this year’s THE research impact (citations) indicator and the high placing of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the National University of Colombia in QS’s employers survey are evidence that these rankings continue to be implausible and unstable. To make higher education policy dependent on their fluctuations is very unwise.

This is particularly true of the two leading Irish universities, Trinity College Dublin (TCD)  and University College Dublin (UCD), which have in fact been advancing in the Round University Rankings produced by a Russian organisation and ShanghaiRanking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. These two global rankings have methodologies that are generally stable and transparent.

I pointed out in 2015 that TCD had been steadily rising in the Shanghai ARWU  since 2004, especially in the Publications indicator (papers in the Science Citation Index - Expanded and the Social Science Citation Index) and PCP (productivity per capita, that is the combined indicator scores divided by the number of faculty). This year, to repeat an earlier post, TCD’s publication score again went up very slightly from 31 to 31.1 (27.1 in 2004) and the PCP quite significantly from 19 to 20.8 (13.9 in 2004), compared to top scores of 100 for Harvard and Caltech respectively.

UCD has also continued to do well in the Shanghai rankings with the publications score rising this year from 34.1 to 34.2 (27.3 in 2004) and PCP from 18.0 to 18.1 (8.1 in 2014).

The Shanghai rankings are, of course, famous for not counting the arts and humanities and not trying to measure anything related to teaching. The RUR rankings from Russia are based on Thomson Reuters data, also used by THE until two years ago and they do include publications in the humanities and teaching-related metrics. They have 12 out of the 13 indicators in the THE World University Rankings, plus eight others, but with a sensible weighting, for example 8% instead of 30% for field normalised citations.

The RUR rankings show that TCD rose from 174th overall in 2010 to 102nd in 2016. (193rd to 67th for research). UCD rose from 213th overall to 195th (157th to 69th for research) although some Irish universities such as NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, University College Cork, and Dublin City University have fallen.

It is thoroughly disingenuous for Irish academics to claim that academic standards are declining because of a lack of funds. Perhaps they will do so in the future. But so far everything suggests that the two leading Irish universities are making steady progress especially in research.

The fall of UCD in this year’s THE rankings this year and TCD’s fall in 2015 and the fall of both in the QS rankings mean very little. When there are such large methodological changes it is pointless to discuss how to improve in the rankings. Methodological changes can be made and unmade and universities made and unmade as the Middle East Technical University found in 2015 when it fell from 85th place in the THE world rankings to below 501st.

The Irish Times of November 8th  had an article by Philip O’Kane that proposed that Irish universities should combine in some ways to boost their position in the global rankings.

He suggested that:
“The only feasible course of action for Ireland to avert continued sinking in the world rankings is to create a new “International University of Ireland”.

This could be a world-class research university that consists exclusively of the internationally-visible parts of all our existing institutions, and to do so at marginal cost using joint academic appointments, joint facilities and joint student registration, in a highly flexible and dynamic manner.

Those parts that are not internationally visible would be excluded from this International University of Ireland.”

It sounds like he is proposing that universities maintain their separate identity for some things but present a united front for international matters. This was an idea that was proposed in India a while ago but was quickly shot down by Phil Baty of THE. It is most unlikely that universities could separate data for faculty, students, and income, and publications of their international bits and send the data to the rankers.

The idea of a full merger is more practical but could be pointless or even counter-productive. In 2012 a group of experts, headed by European Commissioner Frans  Van Vught, suggested that UCD and TCD be merged to become a single world class university.

The ironic thing about this idea is that a merger would help with the Shanghai rankings that university bosses are studiously pretending do not exist but would be of little or no use with the rankings that the bureaucrats and politicians do care about.

The Shanghai rankings are known for being as much about quantity as quality. A merger of TCD and UCD would produce a significant gain for the university by combining the number of publications, papers in Nature and Science, and highly cited researchers. It would do no good for Nobel and Fields awards since Trinity has two now and UCD none so the new institution would still only have two (ShanghaiRanking does not count Peace and Literature). Overall, it is likely that the new Irish super-university would rise about a dozen places in the Shanghai rankings, perhaps even getting into the top 150 (TCD is currently 162nd).

But it would probably not help with the rankings that university heads are so excited about. Many of the indicators in the QS and THE rankings are scaled in some way. You might get more citations by adding together those of TCD and UCD, for instance, but QS divide them by number of faculty which would also be combined if there was a merger. You could combine the incomes of TCD and UCD but then the combined income would be divided by the combined staff numbers.

The only place where a merger would be of any point is the survey criteria, 50% in QS and 33% in THE but the problem here is that the reputation of a new University of Dublin or Ireland or whatever it is called is likely to be inferior to that of TCD and UCD for some years to come. There are places where merging universities is a sensible way of pooling the strengths of a multitude of small specialist schools and research centres, for example France and Russia. But for Ireland, there is little point if the idea is to get ahead in the QS and THE  rankings.

It would make more sense for Irish universities to focus on the Shanghai rankings where, if present trends continue, TCD will catch up with Harvard in about 240 years although by then the peaks of the intellectual world will probably be in Seoul, Shanghai, Moscow, Warsaw and Tallinn. 


Anonymous said...

It would make more sense to focus on the students.

Ben Sowter said...

Fair points all... however you've gone a little easy on Shanghai who have also made changes to their methodology lately, particularly around HiCis resulting in uncharacteristically high swings. Average movement amongst the top 100 in Shanghai in 2016 is significantly higher than for QS. The Shanghai ranking may have changed less frequently but counting on it is still placing responsibility for the definition of success in someone else's hands.

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