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.


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