How would a merged TCD/UCD be ranked internationally?

The notion of a TCD/UCD merger does the rounds at regular intervals, most recently from Andrew Cusack, who now includes DCU as part of the mix. Sensibly he concludes that, in the light of the very solid opposition this would receive, this would not be a sensible proposal, at least not immediately. A more complex strategy is to be adopted. Strategic collaboration between the institutions should be promoted, as a first step. On the eventual merger, the shell of ‘Dublin University’ should be retained, as a sop to tradition. And merger into a single institution should not be inconsistent with strong, independent colleges within it. “Size or shape aren’t the ultimate point of this coming-together, but ensuring that Ireland has an undeniably world-class university for the education of our young and the expansion of human knowledge.”

So while the path is to be different, the ultimate destination is the same – a single University of Dublin, on a scale unparalleled in Ireland and very significant by world standards. To which problem is this a solution? Andrew makes this clear in the opening words of his article: “Not a single Irish university made it into the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings this year”, whereas this new mega-institution would have at least a decent chance of doing so. What we make of this will depend upon our instincts about the efficacy of university management. Some will say that, given the splendid opportunity of such a merger, administrators of a suitable calibre cannot but make a success of it. Others will doubt that the skills of university managers are so astounding; managing academics is, notoriously, an exercise much like herding cats. And Andrew’s pious hope that “such a merger should not be a reductive cost-cutting measure” is no more than that; given current circumstances, many managers have no option but to cut costs, and by what mechanism can this be prevented? Economically speaking, we are where we are …

But is the underlying premise valid? The premise is clear enough: bigger university = better university ranking. Unfortunately, even a brief glimpse at ranking methodology suggests that this is a false hope.

Let’s take the Times Higher Education rankings. This currently scores universities world-wide against 13 metrics (grouped under 5 heads). So for example the metric for number of PhDs awarded (under the overarching ‘Teaching’ head) accounts for 6% of the total score for each institution. Suppose two universities merged: the new institution would have a greater number of PhDs, so is its score improved? Well, not necessarily – because the metric used is “scaled against its size as measured by the number of academic staff”. And so for many of the metrics. No doubt the Times Higher Education rankers know they are vulnerable to criticism for simply rewarding size. In fact, most of the metrics used are scaled for the size of the university concerned, measured either by staff size or student numbers.

Suppose, then, that two THE-ranked universities merged. Would the new university have a better score than the old? (See the THE‘s account of their methodology here.) For most of the metrics, the answer is No – the metric is linked to the size of the university measured, and so the new metric would presumably fall between the metrics for the two universities considered on their own. For a few – the reputational metrics – the answer is unclear, as the new institution would not properly speaking have a “reputation” of its own for a few years – no doubt a primary task of the newly-merged management would be urgent and complicated negotiations with ranking agencies over how the reputations of the old universities would be “merged” for ranking purposes. Eventually the new university would acquire its own “reputation”, but preceded by an extremely uncomfortable period – during which, perhaps, its “reputation” would have crashed, and the merger denounced as a failure by a sensation-seeking press and blogosphere. Only one metric can be said to reward size – number of citations of published work (“research influence”). This is not an insignificant part of the mix (30% of the total). However, if the two universities already perform well on that metric, then the improvement to be expected is small (no university can score higher than 100%, and even Harvard only gets 99.8%).

As an experiment, take the most recent THE ranking data for Trinity and UCD. Then estimate how a university formed from a merger of the two would score. For one estimate, let’s be positive and make the following (very optimistic) assumptions: that the new university would achieve 97.9% on citations / “research influence” (this is the University of Oxford’s score); and that on the other metrics, it would achieve whichever is the better of the scores that the two universities achieved individually. For a second estimate, let’s be more gloomy, but not outrageously so – assume the citation metric is 89.0% (this is University College London’s score), and that the other metrics are the average of the scores achieved by the two universities individually. The figures then look like this:

Hypothetical merger between TCD and UCD
THE ranking, 2012 figures and methodology
Teaching (30%) Research
Citations/ Influence (30%) Outlook
Industry income
(actual data)
30.3 23.5 91.7 89.4 29.7 51.1 117
(actual data)
25.2 23.7 80.5 83.2 32.3 45.9 159
Merged (optimistic)
30.3 23.7 97.9 89.4 32.3 53.1 104
Merged (non- optimistic)
27.8 23.6 89.0 86.3 31.0 49.4 134

So this merged university would at best be ranked at 104 in the world, along with Delft University of Technology and the University of Montreal – and still just outside the top 100.  On the less optimistic assumption, it comes in at 134, just below the University of Leeds, and some 17 ranks lower than Trinity actually achieved. If ranking is the problem, merger does not solve it.  It may, indeed, make matters worse: losing two world-ranked institutions, in return for a single one which is not guaranteed to do particularly well. Of course, ranking methodologies can and will change – but there is nothing to suggest that these changes will favour Irish institutions.

Some will say that the overall strategic point must not be lost: merger is an opportunity to reap new economies of scale and research synergies; the new institution would be a huge player on the international stage; its name would soon be known world-wide. All this is true, but for every plus there is a minus. Greater size implies greater central control, as night follows day. Many research synergies are already there for the taking simply by individual action, without institutional merger. And merger sacrifices existing reputation and name-recognition for a very uncertain future.

Steve Hedley

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2 Responses to “How would a merged TCD/UCD be ranked internationally?”

  1. University Rankings 2 | The World According to Gar Says:

    […] is a post here about where TCD-UCD would be in the THES university rankings (see my post below) if the two […]

  2. Its educational chestnut time again…. | Brian M. Lucey Says:

    […] it wouldnt even work, absent radical radical surgery. An analysis by Steve Hedley of UCC law school and the aggregator blog 9thlevel Ireland shows this. Steve goes […]

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