The Department of Education tried to downplay the significance of another dramatic fall in the international rankings of Ireland’s top universities.
Internal documents reveal how Minister for Education Richard Bruton had been briefed in advance that third- level institutions were likely to continue their decline in global league tables for higher education.
When published, it emerged not a single Irish university remained in the Top 200 in the Times Higher Education rankings with “major funding cuts” given as one of the most significant factors.
UCD slipped from 176th place to outside the Top 200, while Trinity College was omitted from the rankings because of incorrect data, but was also understood to have been placed below 200.
Departmental emails show Mr Bruton was briefed about how best to explain the struggling performance of the main universities.
An email sent by secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú said: “The next round of… higher rankings are being announced on Monday. Given the deteriorating funding position in recent years, it is likely that our relative position will get worse.”
Briefing notes prepared for Mr Bruton suggested the rankings for 2016/2017 should be treated with extreme caution.
He was advised to say he was “extremely cautious about how we interpret results of global rankings. It is clear that performance in rankings is a very uncertain science and relative positioning is dependent on a large number of factors, many of which are outside our control.”
This was in contrast to briefing notes prepared just a year earlier for the previous education minister, Jan O’Sullivan, which read: “In the 2015/2016 Times Higher Education rankings, Ireland sees two of its seven universities featuring in the top 200, or 1% out of some 15,000 worldwide.”
A year on, however, when no Irish third-level institution featured that highly, the briefing notes explained how the “flaws and biases” in such ranking systems were well-known.
However, the briefing says the league tables remain highly significant — used by investors, employers and students to research the standard of universities and “cannot be ignored”.
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said: “The acceptance of a decline to mediocrity is deeply worrying. The funding gap at third level is something almost everyone has accepted. These documents show up a government attempt to hide this issue and accept low standards.”
Mr Bruton was also told to acknowledge funding was a big concern for third-level institutions. The internal briefing suggested any additional money for third-level would have to go hand-in-hand with new performance-based funding. It said pressure on the education sector is likely to get worse in the coming years, with increased student numbers.
“In the coming decade, the demographic bulge will start to come through to higher education with numbers expected to be nearly 30% higher by 2030,” said the briefing.
The Department of Education said it had consistently outlined that global rankings needed to be interpreted with caution.
“It is clear that performance in rankings is often highly reliant on surveys of opinion and of citations in journals which do not adequately capture the full range of activities taking place in our higher education institutions,” it said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved