Monday, 4 July 2011
Yet another university ranking scheme - do we need one?
One might have guessed that the EU would not be able to leave well alone. We already have the Times Higher Education world university rankings, as well as the QS university rankings and the less well known Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). So why do we need yet another system?
Apparently the EU thinks we do, and has established a series of pilot projects to explore how it might work, what indicators could be used, and to evaluate how reliable and meaningful the resulting ranking of institutions would be. In its present, pilot version, the new system would be called U-Multirank, and its website can be found here.
From the interim reports produced by U-Multirank, it's easy to pick holes over matters of detail, such as the over-reliance on bibliometric measures, including citation indexes, to assess research, largely reflecting the sort of debate that has been going on in the UK in connection with our RAE and now REF (Research Excellence Framework) evaluation systems. This is a difficult area, so it's not surprising to encounter familiar problems here.
Far more importantly, from reading material on the new website for U-Multirank, I was left feeling quite unsure whether the EU has any idea what a university does, or what the purpose of such institutions is in our modern society.
To show what I mean, here is the objective of the U-Multirank project:
The objective of the project is to develop a feasible transparency instrument that can contribute to enhancing the transparency of institutional and programmatic diversity of European higher education in a global context and test its feasibility. The general intention is to create a transparency instrument that will have a global outreach, potentially covering higher education institutions of all continents.
I must confess that I'm finding it really hard going to make any sense of this at all. To be blunt, I have no idea what it means!
From the reports available on the website, one can infer something more coherent than this, since lists of indicators have been produced, a sample of universities has been surveyed in various countries, and so on. So in practice the position is much better than the above vague and general objective. That said, given the diversity across Europe, including in higher education, it is to be expected that the proposed indicators would also cover a broad field, as indeed they do. And they include university 'constituencies' such as the students, users of research, users of graduates (employers), etc. This all seems quite reasonable, but for me the overall result lacked focus and left me with a very woolly and loose notion of what the EU thinks our universities are about. It's actually quite hard to disagree with much in the available U-Multirank reports, and that surely suggests that they are not telling us much.
Sadly, therefore, this does not seem to me a promising path either to improve the competitive position of European universities, or to strengthen Europe's position in the world economy.