This afternoon sees the start of the “Rankings and the Visibility of Quality Outcomes in the European Higher Education Area” conference in Dublin Castle, part of the events associated with Ireland’s Presidency of the EU.  A good chunk of today’s proceedings focuses on the adoption and roll-out of the EU’s new university ranking exercise, called U-Multirank, which aims to be live by 2014.

Since the initial global university ranking in 2003, there have been a plethora of ranking systems developed, with the big three being the ARWU (Shanghai) ranking, QS ranking, and the Time Higher Ed ranking.  These rankings have become key benchmarks for comparing universities within regions and across the globe, seized upon by some universities for marketing, and the media and government to either promote or denigrate institutions.  They are undoubtedly being used to shape education policy and the allocation of resources and yet they are routinely criticised for being highly flawed in their methodology.

Somewhat ironically, a sector devoted to measurement and science has been evaluated to date by weak science. There are several noted problems with existing rankings.

The rankings use surrogate, proxy measures to assess the things they purport to be measuring, and involve no site visits and peer assessment of outputs (but rather judgements of reputation, alongside indicators such as citation rates).  An example of such proxies include using the number of staff with PhDs as a measure of teaching quality; or the citation rate to judge quality of scholarship.  The relationship in both cases is tangential not synonymous.

The rankings are highly volatile, especially outside the top 20, with universities sliding up and down the rankings by dozens of places on an annual basis.  If the measures were valid and reliable we would expect them to have some stability – after all universities are generally stable entities, and performance and quality of programmes and research do not dramatically alter on a yearly basis.  And on close examination some of the results are just plain nonsense – for example, several of the universities listed in the top 20 institutions for geography programmes in the QS rankings in 2011 do not have a geography department/programme (e.g. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Columbia; note the link automatically redirects to 2012 results for some reason) and other rankings barely correspond to much more thorough assessments such as the UK departments vis-a-vis the UK research assessment exercise (very few geographers would rank Oxford University as being the best department in the UK, let alone the world).  Such nonsense casts doubts on all the results.

The measures do not simply measure performance but also reputation judged by academics. The latter is highly subjective based on opinion (often little informed by experience or on-the-ground knowledge of the relative performance of universities in other country systems) and is skewed by a range of factors such as the size of alumni, resources and heritage (their past reputation as opposed to present; or simply name recognition), and is inflected by wider country reputation.  The sample of academics who return scores is also skewed to certain countries.

Because the measures add weight to data such as citation and research income they favour universities who are technical and scientific in focus, and work against those with large social science or humanities faculties (whose outputs such as books are not captured by citation and require less research funding to do high quality research).  They also favour universities with large endowments and are well resourced.  The citation scores highly skew towards English-Language institutions.

The rankings take no account of the varying national roles or systems of universities, but looks at more global measures.  Universities in these systems are working towards different ends and are in no way failing by not having the same kind of profile as a large, research-orientated university.

None of the ranking standardise by resourcing, so there is no attempt to see who is performing the best with respect to inputs; they simply look at the scale and reputation of outputs and equate these to quality and performance.  This conflation raises some serious questions concerning the ecological fallacy of the studies.

These failings favour certain kinds of institutions in certain places, with the top 100 universities in the three main rankings all dominated by US/UK institutions, particularly those which are science and technology orientated.  There is clearly an Anglo-Saxon, English language bias at work, hence the new EU ranking.  Very few people who work in academia believe that the UK has many more better universities than those in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, or Sweden, or Japan, or Australia, etc.  Yet only a handful of universities in these countries appear in the 100, and hardly any at all in the top 50.

Whether the U-Multirank system will provide a more valid and robust ranking of universities, time will tell.  The full final report on its feasibility suggests a wider vision and methodology and some concerted attempts to address some of the issues associated with the other rankings.  One thing is certain, rankings will not disappear, as flawed as each of them are, because they serve a useful media and political function.  However, they should be viewed with very healthy scepticism, mindful of the criticisms noted above.

Rob Kitchin

For an interesting set of blog posts and links to media stories re. university rankings see these collections at Global Higher Ed and Ninth Level Ireland.

At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?

This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.

Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:

We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.

It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.

Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:

  1.   Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
  2.  Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
  3. Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
  4. Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
  5. Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
  6.  Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage


Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May

The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.

The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:

1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development

2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions

3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions

4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies

5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises

6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions

The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.

Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!

Cormac Walsh

The financial and economic crisis that has hit the world and Europe since Autumn 2008 has had its most severe impact on a few European countries, countries that are often referred to as ‘peripheral’ from the standpoint of the geography of Europe or the EU: Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Does that mean that their geographically ‘peripheral’ position is at the heart of their current financial and economic problems? Not really. Or maybe, somehow. Maybe it was their location on the margins of Europe that played a part in their lagging economies compared to their EU partners in the 1970s and 1980s as they all joined the EU (1973 for Ireland, 1981 for Greece, 1986 for Spain and Portugal)? And maybe that explained to a certain extent the ‘fast-track’ paths to economic growth that some of them went for then, with the support of European funding for infrastructural upgrades in particular, but also based on what Henri Sterdyniak, from the OFCE research center, has called “macroeconomic strategies that have become illusory”. And that’s precisely what’s more important than their ‘peripheral’ location: the fragility of their respective economic development model. In the case of Ireland, that has been largely explained, discussed, documented through many posts on the Ireland after NAMA blog (since its creation at the end of November 2009, almost a year ago now) and other forums such as or The Irish Economy among others. But there hasn’t been too much discussion about how the Irish model compares to its ‘peripheral’ counterparts and what lessons Ireland could learn from them and their own crisis as it looks for a way to get out of the crisis and to rebuild its growth and a (hopefully) viable growth model. There’re a few things that I would like to highlight to that effect.

The Irish and Spanish experiences have been quite similar so far. Their public debt was quite low, their growth levels quite high, but in both cases growth was heavily reliant on real-estate and financial speculation. In Ireland, at the end of 2007, loans for real-estate development amounted to 250% of the GNP. That made for a huge real-estate bubble, the same kind of bubble that exploded in Spain a few months after the Irish one. While a large amount of the bursting of the Irish bubble is being cleaned up by NAMA, Spain has not created its own toxic bank to absorb the current 325bn euros of debts of the real-estate sector.

Portugal and Greece are in a different situation. Their major problem has been the lack of growth in the past decade or so (while Ireland and Spain were experiencing high levels of ‘growth’, but one that was highly illusory given its speculative nature). Their main problem is that their governments have been very keen on entertaining the idea that growth was happening: to international investors, to their own population, and to EU officials. They did so through rather irrational budget decisions. While Greece deliberately falsified and concealed its high levels of public debt and justified 4% annual growth since 2000 by emphasizing the performances of its real-estate industry and tourism (two sectors that are highly volatile), Portugal went overboard with public spending to stimulate domestic consumption while it struggled to boost the growth of its leading industries and main exports (e.g. textiles).

Among the four countries, Ireland is actually the only one that has developed a real and successful export-oriented economy, in particular in knowledge-based sectors such as (e.g.) pharmaceuticals, electronics, software …etc. But the problem is that the success of this strategy relies to a great extent on the very low corporation tax (12.5%, as opposed to 25.7% on average across the Euro zone, almost 30% in Germany, and over 33% in France). And this is something that may be challenged in the near future as part of the EU/IMF bail-out package that is currently negotiated. As noted in a post from yesterday by Rob Kitchin, the IMF has indicated in its position paper on structural reform in the Euro area that harmonization of macroeconomic policies should be a priority in the Eurozone, and an harmonization of the corporation tax across the area, or at least some degree of convergence, is not to be excluded. This does not mean that firms are necessarily going to massively flee out of Ireland if the corporation tax is raised by a few percentage points. While the potential short-term negative effects of raising the corporation tax has recently been discussed by Chris van Egeraat in another post on this blog, there are also a series of factors that make firms more locally-embedded than implied by the hypermobility of capital argument mobilized by those in favour of maintaining a low corporation rate in Ireland. I’ll leave that aside for the moment, and I will pick up on another point raised by Chris van Egeraat in his post and many others in the past few months, which is the fact that Irish recovery and a viable Irish economic model cannot be built upon a low taxation model. It needs to be rebuilt on strong foundations, including a proper industrial policy, that would send the right ‘signals’ to global markets and international investors, i.e. the image of an economy that is actually managed and doesn’t threatened to spiral out of control again.

A major problem here is that it is going to be very difficult for Ireland, but also Greece, Portugal and Spain to build the foundations of a strong economic model with the austerity plans that are currently being designed or implemented because the priority being the reduction of national deficits through major cuts in levels of public spending, this leaves close to nothing to support these sectors that could create a solid base for these economy (e.g. textiles in Portugal, food industries in Spain and Greece, new technologies in Ireland). That includes, for example, continuous funding for education to keep training indigenous youth, mentoring and internship programmes to help graduates enter the workforce, financial and structural support for start-ups to create jobs ….etc (as discussed in this post for example). If their respective economic bases do not solidify in the next few years, all four countries are likely not only to be prone to future crises of the sort that we are dealing with right now.

Delphine Ancien


The Irish Times - Front Page - 29/09/10


One of the headlines of the Irish Times today (29 September 2010) reads: “Ireland will not need emergency funding, says EU commissioner.” That’s according to Olli Rehn, European Economics commissioner, who does not foresee the need for the Irish government to seek emergency financial aid from supranational institutions such as the EU or the IMF to rebuild the international investors’ confidence in the country.  An optimism shared by Taoiseach Brian Cowen who also dismissed the idea yesterday that Ireland will need to resort to external financial help to sort out its economy. So Ireland does not appear in such a bad situation from the EU standpoint, compared to, say, Greece or Spain, for example.

That may not be the case for long if we are to judge by another headline of today’s Irish Times (ironically placed right next to the other one cited above on the printed edition – see on the right-hand side) which warns that “Anglo Irish ‘worst case’ bill may top €30bn.” I thought the ‘worst case’ scenario was a €20bn bill, or maybe it was €25bn? My confusion probably comes from the fact this figure (and others) keeps changing, and seems to be always on the rise. So can we take that €30bn seriously? In the same Irish Times article, financial correspondent Simon Carswell points out that “this will meet minimum capital rules up to the end of 2012 but the banks may need more capital beyond this date should losses rise.” How and where would we find more capitalat that point? More bonds? But how can we afford issuing more government bonds when interest rates on 10-year bonds have already risen close to 7%? So, I wonder, can we completely dismiss the idea that Ireland may need to seek help from the EU and/or the IMF at some point?

Delphine Ancien