Trinity was in a celebratory mood this week, as the latest QS World University Subject Rankings placed four Trinity subjects in the world’s top 50.
The subjects are perhaps unsurprising – English, classics, nursing and politics – but it’s a reminder once again that, despite the preponderance of funding and focus on STEM, arts subjects remain dominant.
The failure of STEAM (science, technology engineering, arts and mathematics) to really catch on as an acronym might be a result of poor marketing, but it also shows how the emphasis on STEM has seeped into our popular and political consciousness. If funding is ever going to properly materialise for arts and humanities subjects, rankings success won’t guarantee it.
Yet one might also question what exactly Trinity was celebrating. Writing in the Financial Times last week, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, said that UK universities – despite all the political point-scoring that surrounds the sector – are the envy of the world. She’s not wrong. The rankings paint a cheerful picture for a country known for bemoaning its own universities, with the UK home to top universities in 10 subjects and with at least one UK college ranked in the world’s top three institutions in 32 of 48 subjects.
It’s hard to deny that Ireland’s higher education sector – and Trinity’s achievements – pale in comparison. Even English – Trinity’s gold-standard specialty – can’t compete with top UK universities.
Provost Patrick Prendergast and the Irish Universities Association will point to the lack of funding, their hard-pressed fight for autonomy and the deaf ears in Leinster House as the problem – they can’t compete with UK universities buttressed by £9,000 fees.
Yet there is an opportunity here too for Trinity and Ireland’s top universities. While how Brexit will impact on UK universities is yet to become clear, staff are already uneasy. Over the next few years, Irish universities have a chance to lure these academics across the water, in the hopes of improving their floundering rankings. For now, however, faced with funding deficits and low staff morale, the Dutch courage of rankings will have to suffice for our universities.