The fall of Ireland’s top universities in international rankings has for a number of years teetered on the verge of becoming a national embarrassment.
But perhaps even more embarrassing is that this week, two of the most powerful figures in Irish higher education took entirely antithetical stances on how to tackle the problem.
In an article in the Sunday Business Post, Provost Patrick Prendergast – who, it must be noted, has talked out both sides of his mouth on rankings – called for a national rankings strategy, in an attempt to save Irish universities from further reputational damage.
In the same piece, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor scorned the suggestion. Not only would implementing a strategy be unwise, Mitchell O’Connor argued – it would amount to “gaming the system”.
Rankings as a metric for educational quality are certainly contentious. But the fact that the Minister and Prendergast disagreed so fundamentally – and in a newspaper, rather than around a negotiating table – is surely an apt microcosm of the state of the sector today.
The incident throws into sharp relief not only the trouble that Irish universities find themselves in, but also the lack of a coherent vision for how to rescue them.
The disagreement was not merely pedagogical: Mitchell O’Connor’s dismissal of rankings smacked of defensiveness and demonstrated a refusal to acknowledge the serious consequences of rankings falls.
Rankings, of course, are not the be all and end all, but Prendergast is right when he says that the absence of an Irish university in the top 120 is a sign that the higher education sector is failing to keep pace with the elites it wants to fit among.
It’s clearly not an issue with an easy solution – but it’s even clearer that arguments in national newspapers won’t get us any closer to one.
Students and their unions have long concentrated their criticisms of the government on the issue of funding. However, the division emerging between higher education’s most important stakeholders on issues aside from funding shows that the problem now goes beyond that.
Higher education is a sector starved not only of money, but of clear direction.