World-University-Rankings-RCian Carton examines how the debates over the QS World Rankings and third level-funding in Ireland and could be a minor sideshow to a different issue.

 The release of the latest update of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World Rankings was greeted with the standard reaction by managers in Irish universities. Another decline for Irish universities was the slant of the day for the media, as evidenced by the fact that UCD fell from 139th place down to 154th, while Trinity dropped from 71st to 78th spot. University College Cork (UCC) also dropped down by three places. However, most of the other Irish institutions made slight gains.

The problem for UCD and Andrew Deeks, its President, is that he had previously used the QS rankings to defend the university’s performance last year. It came when UCD dropped out of the top 200 places in the 2014 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Deeks pointed out that UCD had held its QS position in 139th place in the 2013 and 2014 QS rankings, and suggested that QS was a more reliable performance indicator. Now that UCD has dropped in that, he must certainly be feeling the pressure.

UCD explained away its decline on its website as being due to “methodology changes” and to changes in “UCD’s data submission based on clarifications QS included in this year’s data request.” It scored a minor victory in being able to claim the number one spot in Ireland for citation per facility, which is based on a university’s research output.

?John J Boland, Dean and Vice President of Research at TCD, wrote a critical article in the Irish Times on the state of Irish universities, in response to the latest set of rankings. The crux of his argument is simple, that the “real competition is the rest of the world, and to have our top university ranked 78th in the world is simply not good enough for Ireland, our students or our ambition to become a leading- edge knowledge-driven economy.”

Therefore, commenting on Trinity’s 78th place ranking in contrast to UCD or others is a moot point. It is not an internal competition between UCD and TCD, but an international one. The debate then becomes one of the Irish third-level system versus the world.

Boland claims that Ireland is living off a “legacy of prudent investments” which were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For him, the one statistic that matters is a simple one; “the funding per university student in Ireland has now dropped below that at second level. Higher education has not been a priority at Government level.” Similarly, Deeks has been recently quoted as saying the rankings highlight the “need for a new funding model that can address the needs of the university and the sector.”

Deeks wrote an opinion column for the Irish Times on the 23rd September. His opening paragraph could have come straight out of the mouth of Boland, or indeed anyone involved in running an Irish university. “Over the past 7 years exchequer funding to universities and colleges of education has fallen by 28 per cent while student numbers have increased by 18 per cent. Our student to staff ratio of 22 to 1 is now significantly behind the OECD average of 14 to 1.”

Irish universities are performing well based on limited resources. But is that not a problem within itself? Why does Ireland have a third-level funding problem in the first place? That will be the subject of a future article, but for now, surely one can say that Ireland can no longer hide behind poverty-based arguments when it comes to university funding.

Nevertheless, the purpose of Deek’s article was to address the idea that degree classifications being awarded to graduates (such as First Class Honours etc.) serve as a reliable indicator of university performance, on the basis that they are being used to rationalise education cutbacks. A First Class Honours degree is useless if the individual who received it has obtained no tangible skills in the pursuit of said degree. He likened degree classifications with the nutritional value in food. An unusual metaphor, perhaps, but his observation still stands.

All is well and good, but if the standard of education available starts to drop in universities, one may ask why anyone bothers going to college. The one firewall which has protected them is that the vast majority of the world’s largest companies recruit graduates straight from college as part of their recruitment programmes. The fact that they are called “graduate programmes” status signals this fact. Many advertise that they only accept applications from people with a degree. The “you need a college degree to get a good job” paradigm has been on lockdown for years. However, this may be about to change.

Last month, Ernst and Young (EY), announced it would remove all degree requirements from its entry programmes from 2016 onwards in the UK. It will be interesting to note how many of the 200 “graduate” places it offers each year will be filled by those without a college degree.

The news reports on this development featured some fascinating quotes from Maggie Stilwell, EY’s managing partner for talent, who said that there was “no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” She noted that EY’s “internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.”

In the future, EY will continue to take academic qualifications into account, which will remain “an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole – but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door.” In Ireland, the company said it would be considering implementing the same initiative. The message from EY is clear, it recognises that the best talent can be found beyond the gates of a university.

The monopoly that universities had on the “you need a college degree to get a good job” paradigm is about to be challenged, and rightly so. The government and universities funding blame game could find itself undercut by these developments, and is something to be watched for the future.