From University Rankings to Education System Rankings

University rankings

It seems to have become a predictable outcome for the Irish higher education sector whenever a new set of league tables is released.

No matter it is the QS rankings, or Shanghai Jiaotong rankings, or the Times Higher Education rankings, the performance of Irish universities has been, overall, falling.

In the Times Higher Education rankings which were released late yesterday, no Irish third level institution made into the top 200, the first time since the publication of the rankings.

The most important factor which is considered to have contributed to the decline is the funding cut to the sector throughout almost the last decade.

A few hours before the release (Wednesday evening), everyone at Trinity College Dublin received an email from the University, informing that at this moment, TCD would not be included in the ranking due to some data error.

The email did not specify what the error was, but it did highlight that the data error probably had negatively impacted on the ranking of TCD over the last two years.

Therefore, it is still possible to see, when the data error will be corrected and the rankings will be updated in the way as informed, one Irish university among the top 200. Nevertheless, even this is not guaranteed.

More often now we see a growing sense in Ireland that maybe we should not care about the rankings after all.

This is an interesting argument. Partly, it is true that all the rankings are more focused on research performance than on education outcome. The quality of education, for sure, is much more difficult to measure. Let alone to compare it worldwide.

Education system rankings

Instead of ranking individual institutions, the recently released OECD Education at a Glance 2016 report measures the performance of national education systems.

Overall, in this broadly defined and education-focused ranking, Ireland is also among the bottom performers.

In particular, the performance is measured against a total of 10 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets for education by 2030, showing countries’ efforts to achieve “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

These 10 targets are:

  1. Percentage of 15-year old students performing at level 2 or higher on the PISA math scale (threshold 80%);
  2. Enrolment rate in pre-primary and primary education at age 5 (threshold 95%);
  3. First-time tertiary entry rates (threshold 60%);
  4. Percentage of adults with a high degree of skills and readiness to use ICT for problem solving (threshold 60%);
  5. PISA inclusion index (threshold 75%);
  6. Percentage of adults with high levels of literacy (threshold 50%);
  7. Percentage of students at level A, B and C in the PISA environmental science performance index (threshold 70%);
  8. Computers for educational purposes per student, mean index (threshold 0.7);
  9. Difference in scholarships and student costs in donor countries between 2012 and 2014, in millions (threshold USD 0); and
  10. Percentage of lower secondary teachers having completed teacher education of training programmes (threshold 95%).


Out of these 10 targets, Ireland has available data for 8 of them. As some of the top performers, e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands, have available data for all of the 10 targets, it is more likely that they achieve more targets.

To compare the performance of Ireland with those top performers, it is more reasonable to narrow the focus down to the 8 targets all of the countries have available data.

In particular, I compare Ireland with the following 9 countries which are top performers according to the OECD report: Australia, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Denmark, Japan and Sweden.

Figure 1 below shows GDP Per Capita (PPP) in these 10 countries in 2015. As the World Factbook by the CIA shows, Ireland ($55,500) is ranked at the 3rd place in the 10-country group, following behind only Norway ($68,400) and Australia ($65,400).

Given this context, the overall under-performance of Ireland against these countries, most of which have lower levels of GDP Per Capita (PPP), is even more worrying.

Figure 1

In Table 1 below, I show the performance of the 10 countries in the 8 targets where Ireland has available data (indeed, all of the 10 countries have available data in these 8 targets).

Table 1: Countries’ progress towards the education SDG targets

Education SDG targets 1 2 4 5 6 7 8 9 No. of targets above benchmark
Benchmark 80 95 60 75 50 70 0.7 0 n/a
Australia 80 101 66 77 58 71 1.5 38 8
Canada 86 93 65 83 51 75 0.8 13 7
Netherlands 85 99 73 82 60 70 0.7 -30 7
Denmark 83 98 70 82 50 63 0.8 0 7
New Zealand 77 98 75 78 58 68 1.1 7 6
Belgium 81 98 65 72 53 67 0.7 0 6
Norway 78 98 72 91 58 59 0.8 1 6
Japan 89 96 53 78 72 75 0.6 -1 5
Sweden 73 95 72 87 58 62 0.6 9 5
Ireland 83 100 51 80 45 66 0.6 1 4

Ireland is ranked at the bottom of the group.

In Ireland, the percentage of adults with a high degree of skills and readiness to use ICT for problem solving is 51%, while the threshold for this target is 60%. The percentage of adults with high levels of literacy in Ireland is just 45%, making Ireland the only country under the threshold of 50% in the group.


While those who criticise the methodologies of world university rankings might have rightfully pointed out the limits of the ranking systems, it should not become any excuse for the overall under-performance of the Irish education system (including primary, secondary, and high education).

The challenges facing the Irish sector would not be resolved by ignoring the imperfect university rankings altogether. Nor should we.


National Competitiveness Assessment: Concept, Measurement, Performance, and Policy

In this blog, I present an assessment of Ireland’s national competitiveness and an overview of policy measures to secure its competitive advantage.

1 The concept of competitiveness

The concept of competitiveness was initially developed at the firm level in the 1970s, and there has been an evolution from firm level analysis to the evaluation of territorial competitiveness since the 1990s. There are remarkable differences between firms and places in the ways they ‘compete’. In the view of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) in Ireland, there are four main types of competitiveness outputs (i.e. the metrics of current competitiveness): business performance, costs, productivity and employment.

2 The measurement of competitiveness

Area competitiveness is the result of a complex interaction between input, output and outcome factors and thus it cannot be measured by ranking any one variable in isolation. They have been a large number of exercises measuring the competitiveness of localities, regions and nations. Given the space limits, this section outlines the following three approaches.

2.1 The Global Competitiveness Index (GCI)

The GCI 2015-16 by the World Economic Forum provides an overview of the competitiveness performance of around 140 economies. It combines 114 indicators which are grouped into 12 pillars: institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education, higher education and training, good market efficiency, labour market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication, and innovation.

2.2 The World Competitiveness Yearbook (WCY)

The WCY 2016 by the Institute for Management Development (IMD) presents competitiveness performance for 61 economies. It comprises more than 340 criteria, which are either hard data from statistics or soft data from survey results, grouped into the following four factors: economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency, and infrastructure.

2.3 Ireland’s Competitiveness Scorecard (ICS)

ICS 2016 by the NCC analyses over 140 indicators grouped into the following four factors in a ‘Competitiveness Pyramid’: essential conditions, inputs, outputs, and objective. With a special focus on Ireland, ICS compares its performance mainly with OECD and EU countries. Different from the GCI and WCY, the NCC does not “attempt to create a single quantifiable measure of competitiveness – rather, each indicator is examined individually.”

3 Ireland’s competitiveness performance

Ireland’s competitiveness performance between 2007 and 2016 in both the GCI and WCY is shown in Table 1 below. As pointed out earlier, the total number of economies included in these two rankings is rather different from one another. This table is intended to reveal how Ireland’s ranking has evolved in recent years.

Table 1: Ireland’s global competitiveness rankings, 2007-16

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GCI 22 22 22 25 29 29 27 28 25 24
WCY 14 12 19 21 24 20 17 15 16 7

As Table 1 shows, in both rankings, Ireland has consistently been among one of the most competitive economies in the world. In 2016, Ireland was ranked 24th (out of 140) in the GCI and 7th (out of 61) in the WCY. An overall impression is that Ireland’s competitiveness declined significantly between 2008 until 2012, but has been improving since.

Figures 1a and 1b show in more detail how Ireland’s ranking in the main factors has evolved.

Figure 1a
Figure 1b

As Figures 1a and 1b use somewhat different headings for the main factors, it is not straightforward to compare across the rankings, a task which would need much more detailed data analysis. Nevertheless, it is clear from both figures that Ireland performs relatively well in business efficiency and innovation, but consistently faces challenges in basic requirements and infrastructure during the period.

4 Policy measures to secure Ireland’s competitive advantage

While the GCI and WCY are useful in ranking Ireland against its international counterparts, the ICS provides much more detailed analysis focused on Ireland. In order to clarify the policy measures to secure Ireland’s competitive advantage, one needs to understand both the strengths and weaknesses in Ireland. On the one hand, we will need policy measures to maintain those aspects where Ireland shows strengths; on the other hand, we will need policy measures to address those aspects where Irelands shows weaknesses. This section focuses on the latter type of measures based on the NCC’s Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenges reports.

Table 2: Main challenges in Ireland’s competitiveness, 2014-16

2014 2015 2016
1 Addressing cost competitiveness Increasing capital investment Investing in infrastructure
2 Investing in economic infrastructure Broadening our enterprise and export base Ensuring cost competitiveness
3 Broadening our enterprise and export base Enhancing Ireland’s position from an investor perspective Enhancing talent and skills
4 Enhancing talent and skills Providing affordable property Supporting innovation and productivity
5 Improving access to finance Enhancing talent and skills Broadening our enterprise and export base
6 Rebuilding the trust of citizens in the public bodies Increasing labour market participation

Table 2 above summarises the main challenges faced by Ireland, which in consequent require specific policy measures to address. There are many challenges occurring repeatedly over the three-year period as highlighted, and they can be labelled as ‘systematic challenges’, including addressing cost competitiveness, investing in infrastructure, broadening the enterprise base, and enhancing talent and skills. Thus, the main policy measures are as below:

  • To address cost competitiveness, the policy focus needs to be on cost reductions in key business inputs such as labour costs, energy costs, and property costs;
  • To improve the conditions of infrastructure, the policy focus needs to be on transport (road, public transport, airport, and seaports), energy, telecoms and related services;
  • To broaden the enterprise base, the policy focus needs to be on supporting foreign investment, increasing the capacity of Irish firms, and supporting entrepreneurship;
  • To enhance skills, the policy focus needs to be on meeting the demand for skills required by the enterprises and training both employed and unemployed workers.

There are always new challenges emerging as the economy grows, and they also need persistent policy attention whenever they occur.

(This blog is part of the written exercise I undertook for a job interview in August.)

Assessing the Performance of the Regional Innovation Systems in the CBD (Copenhagen, Brussels, and Dublin)

During the past few decades, the regional innovation system (RIS) has provided a major framework for analysing regions’ roles in economic development. There has also been more literature exploring the performance of the RIS over time.

It is essential to note that the performance of the RIS is not the performance of ‘innovation’, but the performance of ‘system’.

A key approach to analyse the performance is based on a logic model, covering the essential characters of the process leading from policy to societal impacts. In particular, it conceptualises and creates logical relationships between “the context where the action is taking place, the action itself, the immediate outputs of the activity and wider long-term societal impacts”.

There are critics to this approach, arguing that it simplifies the relationships between inputs, outputs and impacts, especially by “assuming linear causal relationships” between them. Nevertheless, many have suggested that it still provides a useful framework to describe and analyse the performance of a RIS.

There are in general the following 4 dimensions considered in the model: (1) Inputs; (2) Processes and activities; (3) Outcomes; and (4) Impacts.

In this blog, I use this framework to assess the performance of innovation systems in 3 urban areas namely the CBD (Copenhagen in Denmark, Brussels in Belgium, and Dublin in Ireland). The main idea is to compare the innovation performance of Dublin urban region with its two international counterparts.

Table 1: Inputs

Share of R&D total expenditure (in % of GDP)
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 1.37 1.52 1.54 1.39 1.36
Copenhagen 5.11 5.07 5.03 4.90 4.91
Dublin 1.25 1.43 1.64 1.62 1.55
R&D total personnel rate (in % of total employment)
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 3.95 3.89 3.91 3.62 3.70
Copenhagen 4.94 5.10 5.26 5.63 5.56
Dublin 1.50 1.58 1.78 1.84 2.16
Share of labour force with tertiary education (in % of labour force)
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 45.4 44.8 46.5 46.2 47.5
Copenhagen 38.3 38.1 38.2 39.7 42.5
Dublin 36.5 37.6 39.8 41.4 42.5

Table 1 above describes the change of three input factors in the innovation system of the CBD between 2007 and 2011. For all the three factors, Dublin fell behind Brussels and Copenhagen in 2007 and has been catching up since.

In terms of share of R&D total expenditure in % of GDP, Dublin overtook Brussels in 2011, while both regions fell far behind Copenhagen. The share of labour force with tertiary education in Dublin increased to level up that in Copenhagen by the end of the period, with Brussels leading the performance by 5 percentage points. In 2011, the R&D total personnel rate was still far behind its two counterparts.

Overall, Dublin was not greatly equipped with input factors, in comparison to Brussels and Copenhagen, the two regions with more advanced economies, but its input conditions have been improving consistently over the period.

Table 2: Processes and activities

Share of employment in high-technology manufacturing (in % of total employment)
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Brussels 1.3 0.8 1.3 1.0 1.1
Copenhagen 2.6 3.0 2.9 2.9 3.1
Dublin 3.2 3.4 3.4 3.2 3.3
Share of employment in knowledge-intensive services (in % of total employment)
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Brussels 48.8 48.2 48.4 47.5 48.0
Copenhagen 55.2 56.6 58.8 59.1 58.0
Dublin 40.8 44.5 45.9 46.6 47.1

Table 2 includes two indicators measuring the processes and activities of businesses in the three regions between 2008 and 2012. The share of employment in high-technology manufacturing in % of total employment in all the regions was low, as high-technology manufacturing was a niche industry sector. In comparison, the share of employment in knowledge-intensive services in % of total employment is a better indicator to map the overall picture of business sectors. Again, Dublin started at a lower level in 2008 than the other two regions, but the gap was closing up over the years.

Table 3: Outcome

PCT patent applications per million inhabitants
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 101.5 105.6 126.5 103 103.4
Copenhagen 416.7 385.2 320 331.4 353.1
Dublin 82.4 81.2 74.9 57.7 80

Table 3 above shows the number of PCT patent applications per million inhabitants in the three regions between 2007 and 2011. As one of the key indicators of outcomes, patent application implies the extent to which the inputs are transferred to tangible outputs. As Dublin falls behind Brussels and Copenhagen in both inputs and processes, it might not be surprising to find that its level of patent application was below the other two regions. Nevertheless, the gap in the outcome seemed to be larger than that in the inputs or processes.

Table 4: Impacts

Regional GDP per head, US$ 2005, PPP
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 64,253 63,572 61,985 62,297 60,637
Copenhagen 41,090 40,479 38,658 40,224 39,731
Dublin 46,050 44,162 40,910 40,676 40,664
Disposable household income, US$ 2005, PPP
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Brussels 17,389 17,489 17,614 17,154 16,199
Copenhagen 14,278 14,385 14,447 15,045 15,146
Dublin 18,221 19,067 18,917 18,321 17,216

Table 4 includes two indicators of impacts, namely regional GDP per head and disposable household income. Regional GDP per head in Dublin was ranked in between Copenhagen and Brussels, but all the three areas have witnessed some fall in this indicator over the years, possibly as a result of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, in terms of disposable household income, Dublin led the performance over its two counterparts. Although these two indicators show somewhat mixed performance of Dublin, but its overall performance in impacts is better than that in the previous indicators.

Table 5: Summary of the performance of the RISs

Inputs Processes Outcomes Impacts
Brussels Medium Medium Medium High
Copenhagen High High High Low
Dublin Low Low Low Medium

In Table 5 above, I summarise the performance of the RISs in the CBD. Brussels displays medium levels of inputs, processes and outcomes, but achieves high level of impacts. Copenhagen enjoys high levels of inputs, process and outcomes, but somehow only displays low level of impacts. Dublin lags behind its two counterparts in inputs, process and outcomes, but performs relatively well in impacts.

In general, it suggests that the RISs are systems with complex dynamic interactions between all the factors. In the case of Dublin, it consistently faces challenges in the inputs and processes indicators, although it show high level of impacts. These fundamental challenges might limit the potential of Dublin in making further progress in impacts.

The Meaning of Education: A Reflection on the Recent Migration Data

Recently, the CSO released data on immigration and emigration in the year to the end of April 2016. For the first time since 2009, Ireland has registered net immigration. Much of the press coverage has tracked the changes of net migration by nationality, i.e. Irish nationals or non-Irish nationals, or by economic status, i.e. at work or unemployed.

These were all useful, yet the CSO database could allow more detailed analysis.

During a recent coffee break, a colleague at the Irish Universities Association mentioned that someone could examine the number of immigrants or emigrants by their education attainment. This was something that was of interest to me, of course.

Figure 1 - Immigrants
Figure 1


Figure 2 - Emigrants
Figure 2

In Figures 1 and 2 above, I show the number of immigrants to and emigrants from Ireland by education attainment between 2011 and 2016. At a high level, those with third level degrees made up the majority of migrants, suggesting the following two things. On the one hand, it might reflect a broader picture of the expansion of higher education in both Ireland and many other countries. On the other hand, it implies that educated workers tend to be more mobile than those with lower levels of education experience.

If we exclude those immigrants or emigrants who did not specify their education attainment, we can examine in more detail the flow of people in to and out of Ireland.

The number of immigrants with third level degrees increased significantly from 22,400 to 38,200, while the number of immigrants with higher secondary certificate and below slightly grew from 17,300 to 18,600. It could be argued that the Irish labour market was attractive to those university degree holders. Indeed, nearly 60% of total immigrants coming to Ireland held third level degrees.

On the contrary, the number of emigrants with any type of education attainment declined during the period. In particular, the number of emigrants with third level degrees fell from 30,100 to 25,100, while the number of emigrants with higher secondary certificate and below also declined from 6,200 to 4,500. It may be a result of the strong economic performance of Ireland in the last few years, with more jobs being provided in the workforce.

Figure 3 - Net migration
Figure 3

Combining the number of immigrants and emigrants together, Figure 3 shows the net migration during the same period. Interestingly, those with third level degrees were the only group with net immigration. Net emigration was found for those with lower levels of education experience.

Although the reasons for people moving in to and out of Ireland could vary, the reality is that the workforce in Ireland has become one which increasingly requires higher levels of education experience. It highlights again the meaning of education in the Irish context, especially as the economy continues to grow, there will be more need for educated workers. A possible side effect, though, could be those with no or low levels of education experience may face more challenges or be crowded out.