Its educational chestnut time again….

Peter Drucker stated What Gets Measured Gets Managed and he is right. This is managerial equivalent of looking for your keys where the light is rather than where the keys may be. Want people to do something? Measure it, reward the metric and then they will achieve. Its a great way to drive performance IF the metric being measured is a sensible one.  Today we see a proposal that is non-sensical. This morning we see that hardy annual, that hoary old chestnut, the creation of one single University of Dublin, pop back up above the sodden ground. In passing, we might note that this is achievable very easily. There is a University of Dublin, the sole constituent college of which is Trinity College. If the government or whomever want a single university I am sure the fellows and board of TCD would look kindly on allowing UCD to come in as  a college, subsuming it into the University.

That is not what this latest incarnation of this zombie theory is about however. Like an ant on a moebus strip the theory comes round, goes away, and so on. According to the Irish Times “The report says a UCD-TCD merger would give the merged college the critical mass and expertise needed to secure a place among the world’s best-ranked universities. At present, Ireland is not represented among the top 100 universities in the prestigious Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking”  So now we have a metric which is (although about the best in class) flawed and which is undergoing continual improvement (aka change).  For comparison, the THES rankings of world universities in 2011 had TCD at 117 and UCD at 159. These are slippages from the heady heights of the 2009 and 10 period but given the construction of the THES rankings changed this is not strictly comparable.  In any case, why top 100? This is metric shibboleth, cargo cult stuff. Why not top 10, or 120 or 25? Why not top 100 in Europe (oh, hang on we are there already, TCD being 42 and UCD 65 ) . Why Times Higher? Why not one of the many many many other world rankings (see a discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of these in an EU document here) that exist? Why tie our national higher education strategy (hah) to an external metric which has changed in the last two years (To our ‘detriment’) and which will change again .

And it wouldnt even work, absent radical radical surgery. An analysis by Steve Hedley of UCC law school and the aggregator blog 9thlevel Ireland shows this. Steve goes through the data and concludes ” So this merged university would at best be ranked at 104 in the world, along with Delft University of Technology and the University of Montreal – and still just outside the top 100.  On the less optimistic assumption, it comes in at 134, just below the University of Leeds, and some 17 ranks lower than Trinity actually achieved. If ranking is the problem, merger does not solve it.  It may, indeed, make matters worse: losing two world-ranked institutions, in return for a single one which is not guaranteed to do particularly well. Of course, ranking methodologies can and will change – but there is nothing to suggest that these changes will favour Irish institutions.”  So a merger, designed to achieve the aim, would not. In fact it would make things worse.

Heres the bit to annoy everyone in UCD. We already have a world class university in TCD (actually, much of UCD and some spots of others are world class also). Bearing in mind the fact that rankings are fairly pants, if we are determined to use rankings lets see where we might rank in areas. QS produce their own world rankings (where TCD is number 67 and UCD 131) and also produce subject area rankings. These are not schools, but rankings of subject areas, and so a university which does not have a school can have a ranking in an area , such as Accounting and Finance in TCD.  The rankings are a combination of research (citation count in essence) , peer evaluation (where one is asked to think of the top universities in a subject area ) and employer feedback. The weights range from about equal in the engineering areas to mainly academic in English language and 50% research 40% academic for biology. So they make an effort to be balanced although are still blending apples, wombats and feldspar, not even different types of citrus fruits.

So where do TCD/UCD rank?  Here –QS Subject Rankings – see  the 2011 and 2012 subject area rankings. Feel free to make your own mind  , but one thing comes clear : TCD is in most areas “ahead”. If we truly want to improve our “ranking” then we have an in-country benchmark for others to attain. What is it about TCD that allows it to achieve this? To what extent is it replicable? To what extent does this tell us about centers of excellence? Might a policy of determining what as a society (not as  an economy) we wish, then determining what that would cost, then working out how much we can afford and from whom, then creating and incentivising structures in universities to work within these parameters, might that not be  a better aim than determining that we want to be in an arbitrary position on an external metric?


8 thoughts on “Its educational chestnut time again….

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » It’s educational chestnut time again …

  2. Stefano Sanvitoefano Sanvito

    Hi Brian,

    This is the too-well-known periodic report on fanta-University, that we (Ireland) somehow like to commission year after year. The point is very simple: the vast majority of the University metrixes are based on “densities”, namely students/staff ratio, citations/staff ratio, etc. This clearly cannot improve by merging. In other words 2+2 does still add to 2, if we talk about densities. The entire thing will work if:

    1) one cuts severely and strategically part of the staff (the part that scores less well against the metrix)
    2) one cuts the number of students to be admitted to the fanta-University

    Even assuming we want to do that (which does not seem the case), why we should merge?

    Funny enough the Stanford total (full-time) student population is about 14,000 (very similar to TCD) … funny they don’t talk about mergining with the North Dakota City College (I made this up, it might not exist).

  3. Mark

    As you say, a TCD-UCD merger makes no sense in terms of a ranking rise and a ranking rise is not demonstrably good value for the changes needed to achieve it. Kind of makes you concerned for the quality of the other recommendations to come.

  4. sorchyland

    I would like to see you do an article on the pros and cons – financially and economically – for merging the two universities. Standing on the outside, over here in the US – with very little knowledge on how the two universities are faring in terms of their financial futures – its easy to assume that one central administration makes more common sense. Or to imagine that sharing of resources (with probably some painful staffing cuts) could only lead to a stronger, more financially stable – and ultimately a bigger, better university. Or even the pros and cons of other resource-sharing models, like why not merge departments across multiple colleges and universities, why not think outside the box and imagine brand new models of educational administration where faculty are shared across institutions; world-class instruments and facilities are available for us for all students in one field, at all universities in one region; where the notion of tenure and institutional ownership and territorial thinking shifts more into a system of bartering or sharing resources – in the interests of making the system itself the best in the world – as opposed to the individual locations or institutions? I love the Hedge School idea of education – and it worked in its own right, a mobile system of education – perhaps this is not something one could possibly quantify or ‘measure’ or prove is profitable or even practical — but it seems in a country as small as Ireland – with a reputation for strong educational standards – we can conceive of many other ways to merge, share and save money – AND create a more cutting-edge, if not ultimately a world-class learning environment…. Any thoughts?

  5. Westley

    Ranking are largely a nonsense, created for marketing purposes that have little or nothing to do with reality or quality. However, they are appealling to politicians who want a simple explanation for complex matters, especially when they are neither inclined, or especially in the Irish case, capable of more sophisticated understanding.
    Trintiy’s drop in the THES rankings is partially explained by the temporary absence of metrics for research in the humanities and social sciences. THES determined that the new metrics for research in the physical sciences were wholly inappropriate for application in the humanities and social sciences and decided a temporary hiatus in including humanities and social sciences research was preferable while they considered more appropriate metrics for the humanities and social sciences. When Trinity was ranked higher, under the more crude research metrics applied to all disciplines, the humanities and social sciences contributed disproportionately to Trinity’s high ranking. If they ever sort out how to accommodate the humanities and social sciences again you might expect Trinity’s ranking to go back up, and the politicians and policy makers will no doubt take credit for this, despite no actual change in functions or abilities occurring; that of course is assuming the humanities and social sciences have not been sacrificed on the altar of the knowledge economy and misconceived workforce needs.

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