Yesterday it was announced that Trinity has fallen 44 places in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Although a steady decline over the past number of years means that the further drop certainly wasn’t a surprise, 44 places is a significant amount that cannot be merely attributed to a flawed ranking system.
The lack of higher education funding has clearly hit Irish universities hard, and there is perhaps no measure more tangible than in these rankings. Ten years ago, Ireland had two universities in the top 100. Now Trinity, although still Ireland’s highest in the rankings, has slipped to an underwhelming 164th, whereas UCD has dropped to the 200-250 range. And although higher education funding is not a problem with an easy solution, the drop in rankings should be a wake up call to the College. It needs to act because a drop in rankings hits Trinity’s most consistent strength: its brand.
Students decide to attend a university for a myriad of reasons: course content, cost, grade requirements, location, resources, extra-curricular life. But, although most are reluctant to admit it, prestige also plays a part. Until it fell out of the top 100 last year, Trinity had consistently branded itself to potential students as “a top 100 university”. This has now become “Ireland’s top university”.
A fixation on superlatives is a part and parcel of the marketing involved in recruiting potential students, but when the College has relied on its historical brand instead of quality teaching, the very real impending loss of status should be very worrying. A drop in the rankings is an issue in any university where it occurs, but surely none more so than Trinity, a College that has relied on its age and its name to attract students for decades.
College needs to act because a drop in rankings hits Trinity’s most consistent strength: its brand
If students are no longer being swayed to attend Trinity because of its international and national standing in rankings, then College needs to be ready with other ways to entice new students. The overhaul of the Joint Honours course was significant but hardly revolutionary, and many modules have had the same content for decades now. Whether it’s pushing Trinity’s strength in entrepreneurship, supporting and promoting the diverse society life, or working to deliver courses that are up to date with the world we live in, there are countless ways College can make Trinity a place that students aspire to attend.
If Trinity continues to drop in the rankings and does nothing to carve out a niche for itself on the world stage, then College has lost its most valuable asset. It has relied on the Trinity name for too long as an assurance of quality. Historical reputation inevitably carries weight – but it doesn’t carry indefinitely. The name of the College will lose its pull if it’s not backed up by high rankings and a subsequently sustained reputation for academic excellence. The drop in first-choice preferences for Trinity in the past two years further perpetuates what the rankings have shown: a radical overhaul is needed if Trinity wants to maintain the brand of excellence that it’s had for hundreds of years
The mammoth drop should be an indication to College that Trinity is being surpassed by universities with superior funding, and superior resources. The funding issue is not easily solved, but focusing on what College is good at, and promoting that, is a better way forward than obsessing over rankings by themselves.
The name of the College will lose its pull if it’s not backed up by high rankings and a subsequent sustained reputation for academic excellence
Rankings will inevitably always be a part of decision-making for some potential students, but a university that excels in particular niches can get over a lacklustre overall performance. Offering new courses, focusing module content on College-driven research, and promoting interdisciplinary teaching and studying could be a driving factor for many students. The Trinity Education Project (TEP) aimed to promote a lot of these aims, but it’s too early to evaluate with any degree of certainty its long-term successes or failures.
Rankings are not always an indicator of quality, but they do have some grounding in the actual and perceived idea of a university. Funding is the most obvious solution to deal with certain components taken into account in the rankings, such as class size and research output.
College shouldn’t give up on trying to bring Trinity back to its former standing, but in lieu of spending all its time on trying to optimise rankings, perhaps it should instead focus on how to ensure students want to come to Trinity – for reasons other than where it comes on a list.