In an op-ed for the Irish Times published in September, the new Dean of Research, John Boland, proclaimed rankings a matter of fundamental importance to the Irish higher education sphere, primarily blaming the abysmal funding situation for Trinity’s decline in the QS rankings. His approach to rankings lacked the qualifiers or caution typically applied to such discussions, the type of caution which normally results in an acknowledgement that maybe rankings don’t tell us everything there is to know about a university. This undoubtedly caused some alarm in many of Trinity’s circles.
That Trinity is now pursuing the development of a full-blown rankings strategy, one which sounds like it will be replete with recommendations as to where funding should be directed internally, we can be sure that world rankings are going to become a fundamental part of how this university operates in the coming years.
No-one would argue that rankings should be ignored, and there are very useful things to be learned from them in terms of figuring out whether a strategy being applied in Trinity is working. But there is a “cart before the horse” situation in play here: rather than deciding what kind of university we want to be and forging ahead with the core tenets of what Trinity has been for over 400 years, something which would undoubtedly be followed by an improvement in rankings, we are instead letting two sets of subjective groupings of data decide our fate, and decide what it means to be a university.
The things that provosts are remembered for typically occur in the middle years of their ten-year term of office, once they have found their feet. The last provost, John Hegarty, is primarily associated with the significant restructuring of the faculties in 2008. Before Hegarty was Tom Mitchell, who presided over a similarly significant expansion of building in Trinity, with a lot of funding provided by Atlantic Philanthropies. And prior to Mitchell was Bill Watts, who is remembered for his preparations for Trinity’s 400th anniversary in 1992.
While the developments surrounding rankings have been brewing since before Patrick Prendergast took office in 2011, it is becoming increasingly clear that rankings will become the central element of his provostship – the thing he will be remembered for. It could be that he will be known as the man who decided that rankings should determine what type of university Trinity wants to be.