Right at the end of 2013, while most were still digesting their Christmas dinners and Ireland was more or less closed down, the Higher Education Authority – the funding council of the Irish higher education sector – published a report entitled Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education. In his introduction to the report, the HEA’s chief executive, Tom Boland, describes its purpose as follows:
‘The development by the HEA of the institutional profiles presented in this report is intended to support higher education institutions in their strategic performance management in order to maximise the contribution of each both to the formation of a coherent higher education system and to national development. This on-going work is therefore fundamental to the implementation of the national strategy, particularly in respect of the imperative to align institutional strategies and national priorities, and to foster and clarify mission-diversity. Rather than reflecting any desire to instigate a ranking system, this report signals the HEA’s intention to work in partnership with all higher education institutions to ensure that the system as a whole advances the national priorities set out by the Government—for economic renewal, social cohesion and cultural development, public sector reform, and for the restoration and enhancement of Ireland’s international reputation.’
The bulk of the report then contains metrics for each institution, including student data, research performance and financial information. So for example we learn that it costs, on average, €10,243 p.a. to educate a student in an Irish university, with the cost ranging in individual institutions from €8,765 in NUI Maynooth to €11,872 in University College Cork. We also find out that the student/staff ratio in Irish institutions ranges from 19.5:1 in Dublin City University to 30.1:1 in NUI Maynooth. In research terms the institutions’ citation impact ranges from 0.6 in the University of Limerick to 1.7 in Trinity College Dublin, with most other universities clustering around the world average of 1.0.
What does this kind of information tell us? Or more particularly, to what use will it be put? Tom Boland emphasises in the passage quoted above that the intention is not to ‘instigate a ranking system’, though others could of course use the metrics to do just that. It can of course be used, as the HEA suggests, by institutions themselves ‘in their strategic performance management’ (presumably in setting and assessing key performance indicators), or as they also suggest to assess whether institutions are advancing government priorities.
In fact, university ‘profiling’ is all the rage, and not just in Ireland. The European Union’s ‘U-Multirank’ project, which is supposed to go live early this year, is something similar:
‘Based on empirical data U-Multirank will compare institutions with similar institutional profiles and allow users to develop personalised rankings by selecting indicators in terms of their own preferences.’
This too will, or so it seems to me, be an exercise in institutional profiling, presenting metrics that can be used to generate comparisons, i.e. rankings.
I don’t really doubt that as recipients of public money universities should present transparent data as to how this is being spent and what value is being generated by it. But comparisons between institutions based on such data always carry some risk. So for example, DCU’s student/staff ratio looks more favourable because the university has a much larger focus on science and engineering than other Irish universities, and laboratory work requires more staff input. NUI Maynooth is ‘cheap’ because the main bulk of its teaching is in the humanities, which are less resource-intensive. This information may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, who may therefore be driven to questionable conclusions. Ironically some of these risks are not so prominent in the more mature league tables, such as the Times Higher Education global rankings, which will already have allowed for such factors in their weightings. The raw data are more easily misunderstood.
It seems to me that institutional profiling is not necessarily preferable to rankings. And it could be open to mis-use.