Sunday, 3 October 2010

Can we learn anything from World University rankings?

In the last few weeks a lot of attention has been paid to some new World University rankings. First came the QS rankings, based on a variety of indicators to do with research quality, success in placing graduates in the job market, teaching quality, and measures of how international the student body and academic staff were. None of these indicators is very easy to measure in an objective way, and it is therefore virtually certain that elements of subjectivity and even perhaps outright bias will have crept into the evaluations. That said, Cambridge University came top, followed by Harvard, Yale, UCL, MIT and the University of Oxford.

Second, the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine’s own rankings were published. The underlying methodology for these has been revamped this year, supposedly to make the rankings more ‘rigorous, transparent and reliable’. The result is to place Harvard first, followed by CalTech, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, with Cambridge and Oxford Universities coming in joint sixth. The UK has just five of the top 50 universities in the world, the USA has 72 of the top 200. Nevertheless, the rankings show that the UK university system retains overall second place in the world after the USA.

But what are we to make of these rankings, and can they tell us anything interesting or useful about either individual universities or national university systems?

Judging from the diverse correspondence and articles written for THE, Guardian Education, and elsewhere in the past two-three weeks, lots of folk think these new rankings should be treated with considerable scepticism. One point made quite often is that since universities are so diverse, it can’t make sense to evaluate and compare them using a single set of indicators. Part of the problem is that there is no agreement over what an ideal university ‘ought’ to look like, and beyond that there are still diverse views about how to measure different dimensions of university performance. And the latter problem gets even worse when we acknowledge the different practices that prevail in different disciplines, making the whole picture hard to get hold of without risk of ambiguity and confusion.

Needless to say, institutions that get a high ranking, or a markedly improved ranking, are inclined to react positively to the ranking exercise, while those that come out less well tend to be more dismissive. That's all very understandable, though it doesn't seem to me to reflect a particularly intellectually respectable standpoint. For surely if someone thinks these ranking exercises are worthwhile, they should not be influenced by their own position in the outcome; and likewise for those who are hostile to the rankings. To oppose or support the rankings people need sound general arguments, not personal prejudice!

For what it's worth, my own view is that the rankings do tell us something interesting, at the very least in a broad-brush sense. The rankings, for all their evident shortcomings, do tell us roughly where the best institutions are to be found and which they are. And while one could argue for hours about whether some institution should be at position 52 or position 39, there isn't much at stake in arguments at that level. What matters more, surely, is whether some institution is ranked in the top 50, or the top 100, say, and whether it seems to be holding position, improving, or slipping back. Moreover, the country-level distribution of top class universities provides some intriguing information - thus, for instance, the world's two largest countries (in population terms), China and India, include remarkably few of the best universities, though both are advancing as they put more resources into higher education. Most of Africa has far too little money to invest heavily in universities, despite many recent reports advising on the need to do so to boost labour-force skills. And despite its impressive historical record of starting some of the oldest universities and fostering high-level learning over many centuries, the modern Muslim world also has almost no world-class universities. One hopes that is not a situation that will last for much longer.

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