A university should, to be true to its name, be universal. Universal, in that it should favour no one discipline over another, save on the basis of academic excellence. Irish universities have, over the last few decades, found themselves in a situation where that is seemingly not just impossible but distinctly unwelcome. But is this sensible? As scientists and thinkers should we not see what the evidence suggests before pursuing a path?
Rankings are like the Gay Byrne era of the Late Late show, in that there is truly one for everyone. While any given ranking on any given year should be treated with a very large grain of salt, in terms of evidentiary value, we might want to consider the broad trends seen in rankings. Obviously, Trinity and UCD regularly top the rankings as the “best” universities, but Irish universities have been slipping, in relative terms, down the slope in various rankings. Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subject areas are typically much lower ranked than arts, humanities and social sciences subject areas (AHSS) – nationally, and in Trinity. The latter is something that gets little attention compared to the acres of more or less uninformed introspection when university rankings emerge.
Comparing AHSS with STEM Subjects in Irish Universities
World rankings – the lower the better
Data averages compiled by Brian Lucey from QS University Subject Rankings
It is at one level a bit of a nonsense to measure biology versus business, or physics versus philosophy. And yet at another level, that is what’s needed for any meaningful decisions to be made. Henry Minzberg said that “what gets measured gets managed”, and he is right to a point. What perhaps is missing is whether or not the person so measuring is interested in the outcomes or whether they are to be ignored.
QS have been providing rankings of subject areas for five years now. The measures are from a four-part analysis – peer evaluation, the employability of graduates of a discipline in a given university as seen by leading recruitment agencies, measures of academic output and academic productivity. None of these are perfect and of course the issues around how to measure output are legion. Nonetheless, there is a clear trend from these rankings. I have written about how this trend is being ignored at both government and policy-making level several times before, but what’s important is that we do not ignore it at college level.
First, across all Irish universities, we see that AHSS subject areas are ranked at or higher than STEM. This is not universal, but is a trend that, despite the attempts of policymakers and the media to do so, is hard to ignore. The higher ranking of AHSS subjects are especially clear in Trinity, UCD and UCC – the three leading universities. Second, we have entire universities where, despite massive investment and even greater hype, we see no STEM subjects reaching the top 200. UL is a case in point. Third, this pattern has held in every single subject ranking that QS have compiled. Fourth, within Trinity and UCD, the two leading universities, this difference is stark. The average rank of an AHSS subject in Trinity is 74, with STEM at 108, more than 30 places higher, while for UCD the rankings are 104 and 145 – with an even larger gap. Fifth, within these, we see some astonishing success stories. TCD has 16 subject areas which have been ranked, on average over the last five years, as being in the top 100 in the world. Can one imagine the stream of government ministers who would descend on Trinity if a STEM area was ranked as the 26th best in the world?
A glance at the graph, which is an average of rankings over the past five years, suggests a few things to me. Bear in mind that any ranking that relies in part on citation counts and bibliometric indices, as this does, will inevitably place AHSS areas such as languages at a disadvantage. And yet, clearly Trinity, and to a certain extent all Irish universities, are excelling in the very areas where the metrics are weighted against them. The “true” excellence is perhaps even greater, and this goes against the regular drumbeat against arts and humanities, where we hear that they are of very little use to the ‘real world’. And still, this metric, which incorporates the views of employers as to employability, ranks Irish AHSS subject areas above STEM.
This becomes even more problematic when we consider the enormous disparity in research funds available to STEM, over and above AHSS, a disparity so large as to render a comparison meaningless. And yet, rankings that incorporate academic excellence and research output again and again suggest that this funding disparity is not being reflected, at national or institutional levels, in outputs. Finally, consider recent events, where we see that the Political Science and Geography disciplines, global leaders, struggling to offer modules and forced into public expressions of concern. Would we see that happening in a STEM area?
An engineer leads Trinity, while a theologian is its Chief Academic Officer. Both AHSS and STEM are represented at the apex of this organisation. Both the Provost and the Vice Provost are passionate about excellence. If they have not already done so, they might consider a public recognition of the evidenced quality of our AHSS colleagues, and inquire from them as to how even with the decks stacked against them, they – we – manage to excel. The lessons learned would be of benefit to all areas.
Brian Lucey is Professor of Finance in Trinity. A member of the College Board, the comments here are his personal views and should not be taken as representing the Board or the College. He blogs at brianmlucey.wordpress.com.
Photo by Sergey Alifanov for The University Times