World university rankings give the lie to Sir Tim’s scaremongering

World university rankings give the lie to Sir Tim’s scaremongering

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 28, October, 2016

THERE IS no mistaking Edinburgh is a university city. The University of Edinburgh received its charter in 1582 and opened its doors a year later – unusually at the instigation of the town council rather than the Kirk. Since then it has been joined by Heriot Watt in 1966, Edinburgh Napier in 1992 and Queen Margaret in 2007 and the change in the city has, in part, been driven by that expansion.

The number of undergraduates studying in the city and requiring of accommodation has grown exponentially, now standing at some 45,000. Likewise the teaching, technical and administrative staff has grown to cope.

All the services a transient population needs, from grocers, laundries, cafés and bars are kept in business, providing employment for locals and students themselves. The built environment has certainly been shaped by the universities (and not always to the good) and much of Edinburgh’s Old Town is owned by them.

All of the universities have crafted a name for themselves with the University of Edinburgh, to use its Sunday name, being ranked regularly in the World’s top 20 by the respected QS World University Rankings.

Were Edinburgh’s universities to suffer an economic shock then it could indeed hit the city economy hard and there could be reputational damage to the City as well the institution themselves. There is no doubt that many people come to Edinburgh firstly to study and then become its best ambassadors for the rest of their lives.

So when Sir Timothy O’Shea, the principal of Edinburgh Uni (pictured), to use its colloquial name, starts to sound off to politicians at the Scottish Parliament that leaving the European Union will range from bad to catastrophic then we need to be concerned, but we also need to ask ‘why” he believes this?

When one scratches the surface of such a claim I often find that it does not always stand up to scrutiny. But from a principal of a university, what with all that teaching, all that learned resource available, surely it is beyond reproach?

Well no. Sir Tim was particularly exorcised about the effect that changes to free movement of labour could have on the recruitment of teaching staff, and that’s fair enough, for that’s a big responsibility.

But when you go to the website and look up the QS World University Rankings you will see that eleven of the top twenty of them are in the United States. That may not surprise anyone and most of the names will be familiar to readers, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is first, Stanford (2nd) and Harvard (3rd). It is not until you get to Cambridge University (4th) that you find the first European uni, and then Oxford (6th) University College London (7th) – before Zurich at eighth and Imperial College London at ninth. Edinburgh Uni, I am pleased to say comes in at an impressive 19th.

In fact what stands out on this list, apart from the fact that more than half are in the United States, is that the next largest group of universities is from the UK, with five. Then there are two each from Switzerland and Singapore.

Is there something missing?

It is not until you get to number thirty-three that you find any university from another European Union Country, the Ecole Normal Supérieuré in Paris, by which time you will have passed another two British Universities on the way, Kings College London (21st) and the University of Manchester (29th).

That’s right, there are no universities from any other EU country in the top thirty rankings of the world other than seven from Britain. There are only three more EU universities with Ecole Polytechnique at 53rd, Amsterdam at 57th, and Munich at 59th in the top sixty (and another three British ones too).

Now you don’t have to be an academic to know that it is not easy to get a work permit for the United States. They are jealously guarded and highly prized. We also know that great seats of learning are very important to national economies and that bringing the finest talents from around the world is what can make a university highly attractive and successful.  But what the QS league table shouts out is that work permits for academic teaching should not be an impediment to success.

If that were the case the US would struggle to attract the best teachers.

Secondly it would appear that having free movement of labour has not especially been of help to European Union institutions, for if that was the case surely we could have expected many EU Unis to be in the top thirty – and surely the UK would not be in such a clear second position?

The truth is more likely to be that the British universities take a truly international outlook by recruiting from around the world rather than relying on EU staff simply because they don’t need work permits. The UK institutions get on with it and do the paperwork and attract high quality lecturers and technicians. Good teachers attract good students, good students attract good teachers.

Any imposition of work permits for academics from the EU – which is by no means certain to happen anyway – should not necessarily work against Edinburgh Uni, or any other British institution. Indeed it may provide a perverse incentive that if all international recruits are treated equally then only the best will be hired rather than an employer go for someone who, administratively, might have proven the easiest.

Bad to catastrophic? I don’t think so. I think Sir Tim O’Shea is being alarmist – and only damaging the name of his institution in the process.

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