The annual cycle of university business has traditionally been dominated by the key student recruitment dates, the beginning of the academic year, the calendar of meetings, examinations, and conferences. Over recent years another major element has been added: the university rankings. Domestic and global rankings come round at certain times of year, and the period from mid-August to the end of September sees the publication of the three main global rankings: the Academic Rankings of World Universities (the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings), the QS World University Rankings, and the Times Higher Education World Rankings.
The first two of these have now been published, and the Times Higher rankings (now increasingly seen as the gold standard) will be issued shortly. The QS rankings are issued today, and once again they are dominated by American and British universities. This year the world’s top university, according to this league table, is Cambridge University, followed by Harvard and MIT. Of the top 20 universities, 13 are American, 5 are British, and Canada and Switzerland each have one. The top non-British EU university, the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, comes in at number 33. The top Irish university, Trinity College Dublin, is now at number 65, followed by University College Dublin at number 134. All Irish universities have dropped substantially in the rankings, except University College Cork and my former institution Dublin City University, both of which have recorded a very slight rise. The top Scottish university is the University of Edinburgh, at number 20.
The publication of these rankings always brings with it a general murmur of dissatisfaction from the academic community, and indeed this is understandable. One of the least useful things any university can do with rankings is to use them as a strategic goal: our goal is to be a top 20, or top 50, or top-whatever university. Such targets are wholly meaningless, as they depend too much on what others are doing and how the methodology of the rankings is adjusted. But that does not mean that the rankings are useless or wrong. They express an important picture of how universities, and national systems, are developing, and they provide useful information and institutional critiques. Rankings should not be misused, but they are here to stay.