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Latest ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion tackles issue of contentious league tables

Ben Sowter, Ellen Hazelkorn, Mike Jennings, Jane Ohlmeyer

The first of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Behind the Headlines discussions for 2017 brought together Irish and UK experts to explore the rise of world university rankings in higher education and query the impact on students, Ireland’s higher education and the research sector.

‘World University Rankings: What do they mean for Irish Higher Education and Research?’ was chaired by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, who spoke of her experience as former Vice-President for Global Relations at Trinity, acknowledging the evident interest she witnessed in the rankings from international students in countries across Asia.

Panellists at Monday’s event included Ben Sowter of the QS World University Rankings®, Ellen Hazelkorn, policy advisor to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), Mike Jennings.

Following a recent report from the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the debate about the rigorousness of the rankings has again come to fore in the higher education circles, particularly at a time when universities and policy makers are paying increasing attention to the global university rankings. The report by HEPI urges governments and higher education institutions to ‘ignore them.’

Written by Bahram Bekhradnia, President of HEPI, the report states: “one of the most acute problems with regard to international rankings is that they only measure research performance. Although they claim to measure other things, fundamentally the measures used are measures of research performance and activity.”

According to Ellen Hazelkorn, this has “led to an over-prioritisation of and emphasis on research rather than teaching, graduate students rather than undergraduate students, and universities rather than community colleges/vocational colleges”, with “huge perversions in policy direction and strategic choice,” among higher education institutes and policy makers.

Mike Jennings of IFUT said that he believes that the rankings are also distorting the perception of quality between Irish universities: "Does anyone seriously believe that the quality of the undergraduate education experience or that the quality of research is better in UCD or NUIG on the basis that one or other is higher up or lower down a ranking scale?"

In his address ‘The Puerile Pursuit of a Meaningless Metric’, he said that actually he believed “that rankings is all about the headlines.”

Arguing that students do not base their decisions to study at a university based on the rankings of that particular university, he said, in his experience, students base their decisions around “an individual acquaintance with a specific department or school that they are going to go to, combined with what is the living situation that they are going to find in that city.”

University Rankings panel discussion at the Trinity Long Room HubBen Sowter, Head of Division at the QS Intelligence Unit said that while “rankings may be a fundamentally simplistic and reductionist lens for assessing the real complexity of a university, they have both proven a catalyst for universities focus on quality, and a powerful starting point for applicants to filter an increasingly bewildering variety of options when considering international study.”

In relation to the Irish landscape, Mr Sowter asked “is Ireland getting weaker or is that because the rest of the world is getting stronger? There is possibly evidence for both of those factors.” According to Mr Sowter, universities don’t have to pay attention to the rankings, but they can use them where appropriate: “Today, the most progressive stakeholders use rankings as one input amongst a range of typically far more sophisticated institutional assessment tools.”

Trinity College Dublin is placed 98th in the 2016 QS World University Rankings.

In 2016 Trinity was withdrawn from the Times Higher Education (THE) university rankings due to errors in data submission dating back to 2015. On Friday 10th February 2017, the Times Higher announced that following the resolution of these errors, Trinity’s new standing in the rankings was 131st place for 2016-17. It was given a revised figure of 101st place for 2015-16 instead of the 160th place it was given at the time.

Ellen Hazelkorn argued that the problem is when employers, policy makers and universities are all using rankings to strategise in order to improve their standing in the league tables.  The bias towards the international, is also skewing our ability to engage with public sentiment on the national level, as was demonstrated in last year’s vote on Brexit in the UK, Ms Hazelkorn noted.


Professor of Modern History and Head of Department of History at Trinity College Dublin, Micheál Ó Siochrú, also contributed to the debate in his comments during the discussion, stating that universities “have created a monster” by taking the university rankings too seriously. In what he argued was an “ideological battle” he said universities are expected to embrace competition, be “business-like” and treat students as “customers.”

Professor Ó Siochrú said it is an “absurdity” to think that Irish universities could compete in the university rankings on a level playing field with US Ivy League institutions such as Harvard. Irish universities can look to other universities in Ireland to benchmark their performance but, he said, “if we start competing against each other, we are undermining the entire university sector here in Ireland. It’s only by speaking together as one that we will be listened to.”

About the event:

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series offers background analyses to current issues by experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of Arts & Humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarization and thus creates space for informed and respectful public discourse.

On March 13th, the 8th amendment will be the subject of discussion. Further details to follow.

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895