Department of Education saw “mixed messages” and “apparent inconsistencies” in latest fall for Irish universities in international rankings

THE Department of Education believed there were “apparent inconsistencies” and “mixed messages” from the latest set of university rankings which saw Irish third level institutions fall yet again in league tables.

An internal briefing explained that there had been a consistent drop in the rating of the Irish universities – except NUI Galway – over the past five years.

In the published QS World Rankings for 2019, Trinity dropped out of the Top 100 while UCD lost 25 places and was ranked 193rd: UCC was “down 55” to be ranked at 338.

A continued downward trend…

The briefing said: “All seven universities and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) feature in the top 800 worldwide, however we are seeing a continued downward trend over the past five years.”

The Department was however, at a loss to explain why the rankings had dropped so much this year because of apparent inconsistencies in how some Irish colleges were being rated.

The briefing explained: “We also see a reduction in ‘employer perceptions’ across the institutions this year.

“This is inconsistent with last year’s Graduate Employability Rankings by the same organisation which show that UCD ranked 75th in the world for overall graduate employability,” it said before outlining apparent contradictions in how Trinity and the University of Limerick had also rated.

They also said when individual parts of the rankings were looked at, Irish colleges were still performing well. Trinity for example ranked 83rd “for the level of international faculty”.

Perceptions of employers suspected of shaping ‘strange’ fall in rankings

The brief recommended that the Department “exercise caution” in reacting immediately to any single set rankings.

An internal later email said: “You may need to be aware that there is a view coming through from the sector that the bulk of the fall in rankings this year is due to perceptions of employers.”

Separate communications, released under FOI, show how Departmental Secretary General Seán Ó Foghlú also thought the continued fall in rankings was “strange”.

Mr Ó Foghlú had been speaking with the President of UCC Pat O’Shea who had suggested the main reason for the decline this year was due to “perceptions of employers”.

“[We] both felt [this] was strange,” he wrote in an email to colleagues.

Cautious interpretations

In a statement, the Department of Education said: “We have to be cautious about how we interpret the results of these commercial global rankings.

“University rankings do not consider the quality of teaching or the quality of learning. Nor do they measure how universities support access or tackle educational disadvantage, or how they support students with special educational needs to fulfil their potential.”

The Department said the government was spending €100 million more in education than they were two years ago and had committed another €2 billion in extra capital funding for the sector over the next ten years.