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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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1 This paper was presented to the Colloque International: Mutations de l’enseignement superior: influences internationales given at the Université du Littoral Côte d’Opale (ULCO), Boulogne-sur-Mer, 20–22 November 2006.

2 There are seven universities in the Republic of Ireland, five of which have origins in the nineteenth century or prior to that period (University College Dublin (UCD), Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Cork (UCC), National University of Ireland (NUIG), National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM)) and two of which were formerly Institutes of Higher Education and were constituted as universities in the last 20 years (University of Limerick (UL) and Dublin City University (DCU)). Ireland has largely retained a binary higher education system with the Colleges of Technology remaining a separate sector governed by separate legislation.

3 To say that the neo-liberal perspective glorifies the market and denigrates the state is not to deny the need that markets have for strong legislative and regulatory protections to protect commercial interests and legitimate market practices (Olssen 1996; Apple 2001). However, if international institutions (such as the European Union) and agreements (such as the General Agreement on Trade and Services) can override state actors in determining the regulatory environment for capitalist interests then the role of the nation state is compromised in terms of its regulatory powers. While major capitalist states can and do exercise influence over the international regulatory environment for capitalism, the role of small states is severely limited. The observation by economists that Ireland is one of the most ‘open economies’ in the world is merely a euphemism for stating that, as a nation state, Ireland (and similarly small states) has very little control over the global trading environment in which it has to operate.

4 Merrill Lynch are a US based Global Financial Management company with offices in 36 countries.

5 The Irish Times (widely regarded as the most prestigious daily newspaper in Ireland) cited the rankings of the Jiao Tong league tables on multiple occasions throughout 2004, especially after the publication of the OECD Report on Higher Education in Ireland in the same year. The ranking of Irish universities was treated unproblematically and the limitations of the ranking system were not analysed in any depth. It also cited the rankings of the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings, again very unquestioningly.

6 The joint conference of the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) ‘Careering Towards the Knowledge Society: Are Business & Academia Geared up to Provide a Future for High Level Researchers in Ireland?’ (30 November 2005 The Helix, DCU, Dublin 9) is an example of the new kind of alliance the universities are developing with business interests. In the research field the links are well established and the Intel, 4th Level Ventures and the CRANN project are examples of this trend. Science Foundation Ireland (funded by the Irish taxpayer) has contributed €10 million to a new Centre for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) entitled the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) in TCD, with partners in UCD and UCC (announced Jan 2004). Intel Ireland is CRANN’s main industry partner; it located four Intel staff members to CRANN where they have a five-year contract as researchers-in-residence at a cost of €2.9 million to Intel. While the collaboration is identified by TCD Provost John Hegarty as one which will help push TCD to the forefront of worldwide innovative research (Trinity Online Gazette), Intel is quite explicit about the corporate interests served by the partnership:

By building technical leadership and research capability in Intel Ireland staff, CRANN allows Intel Ireland to add value to its existing operations while also demonstrating strategic value to Intel Corporation. CRANN enables Intel Ireland to explore niche scientific research in Ireland, which will allow the company to look towards Ireland for future Intel research initiatives.


7 Throughout 2004 and early 2005 UCD went through a wide range of changes in its statutes and structures. The number of Faculties were reduced from 11 to 5 (now called Colleges) while Departments were reduced in number from over 90 to 35. Statute 6, governing the day-to-day operations of the university, was radically altered centralising power increasingly in the President and his close associates. Staff challenged and resisted many of these changes, particularly those that appear to erode the limited democratic controls that they had in the university. They held meetings with and without their trade unions, organised lectures and directly challenged the plans at Faculties, Academic Council and the Governing Authority. However, as time wore on it was clear that changes the so-called ‘President’s Team’ proposed were going to be passed regardless of protests and concerns. Consultations with staff increasingly developed a meaningless ritualistic character as changes in structures were pushed through (with some very minor concessions) regardless of dissent.

8 What is often forgotten in these discussions is that the claim by the state of inability to pay for education is not new. In the Irish case, it has been part of the history of all public education from the mid nineteenth century when the cost of primary education was regarded as too great for the rate payers (Coolahan 1981). More recently when free public secondary education was introduced in the 1960s there was an outcry that Ireland could not afford free secondary education for all students (Coolahan 1981). The same arguments are merely repeated now about higher education.

9 Reay (2004) notes that the ‘research team’ is a euphemism that operates to conceal the true hierarchical and often exploitative relations within the so-called teams. It operates to ensure compliance by concealing the true hierarchies of power, status, income and control that operate within it. Contract researchers are often out of contract by the time papers are written often leaving them with no publication record in return for their work (Hey 2001).

10 The budget for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), that funds the physical sciences, engineering and related mathematical areas, has increased dramatically in the last 5 years. SFI is now a multi-millon euro operation with individual research programmes over €10 million being strongly promoted. The funding for research in humanities, arts and social sciences has remained relatively static with the entire budget for research in the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) being less than that available for single projects in the sciences and engineering areas. (Source: direct communications with SFI and the IRCHSS and published materials from both.)

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