Five months ago, if you had told Trinity’s top officers that June would bring a seven-place rankings jump for the College, they’d likely have bitten your hand off.
Then, all the talk at College level was about the importance of putting in place workable strategies, with little expense spared, to change a narrative about rankings that was fast becoming a genuine risk to Trinity’s reputation.
Similar conversations – though probably less acute – seemed to be going on in other universities, with a raft of strategic plans at the turn of 2020 made startling by the scope of their ambition.
Having appealed, unsuccessfully, for government help to tackle the problem, it seemed then that universities were intent on fixing it themselves.
This week’s QS World University Rankings – which saw five of Ireland’s seven universities moving upwards – would suggest that universities’ plans are bearing some fruit. Although dampened by the current coronavirus pandemic and its promise of future financial strain, the news seemed like a win at last after years of soul-searching amid dramatic drops when it came to rankings.
But the silence from third-level this week has been conspicuous. Provost Patrick Prendergast, a man preoccupied throughout his tenure with the merits and shortfalls of rankings, stayed totally silent on Twitter, and other universities were also quieter than you might have expected them to be.
This might be because at the present moment, rankings improvements could prove a double-edged sword. The government has rarely been on the same page as third-level institutes when it comes to rankings, and with a recession coming down the tracks, there’s a very real risk that the state could use universities’ healthier positions to argue a pandemic-era funding injection isn’t necessary.
This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the biggest benefits of a better rank is that it allows universities to market themselves to the world, and to a lucrative international student market. In a pandemic, that market doesn’t exist.
Only time will tell how third-level will fare in an impending economic depression. But for universities, news that would normally be a feather in the cap has the potential to become an arrow in the side.