Monday, 5 September 2011

More on those university rankings.....

This morning there was another round of news about university rankings, this time an update of the QS rankings. Just under 3000 of the world's higher education institutions were surveyed, with 712 of them being ranked; the top 300 institutions in the ranking have just been published. The methodology underlying the QS rankings is quite complicated, involving:

(a) the collection of data from institutions on such indicators as student-staff ratios and publications per member of academic staff;

(b) a survey of over 16,000 employers to find out how they judge the quality of graduates from different institutions; and

(c) a survey of over 33,000 academics to find out how academics rated other institutions (usually in their own discipline) (I was among those surveyed, and provided information on my own discipline, economics).

So, masses of information, some of it quite objective, some unavoidably subjective and personal. At the end it is all put together to form the published rankings, an enormous task.

As in previous years, the UK, with 19 institutions in the top 100 in the world, comes out rather well. Cambridge remains at number one, and in Scotland, Edinburgh is now in the world's top 20 and Glasgow has come up the rankings by 18 places to 59th. Needless to say, those institutions which have done well - by holding onto an already high ranking, or by coming up significantly - will draw attention to this in their publicity. For whatever they really mean, institutions commonly perceive that good rankings are helpful in recruiting both staff and students. Institutions that come out less well might undertake some sort of internal review to figure out ways of doing better next time, but they will say little or nothing publicly.

Some will try to use these new rankings as a stick with which to beat the government. The argument goes like this: First, the UK has done really well in the rankings; second, it is assumed the government would like to see the UK's strong academic performance continuing in the future; third, with public funding cuts, the introduction of much higher fees, and more competition, the environment in which our universities operate is becoming more difficult; hence it would surely make sense for the government to back off a little, slowing down or even reversing reforms to ensure that our universities have the funding to remain competitive. This is quite an appealing argument, but not ultimately a very convincing one.

In the end, though, I'm convinced that our best universities will manage to steer a path through all the changes going on in our higher education system, and will continue to perform well (though deep down, we all know the rankings don't mean very much, don't we.........).

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