Posted tagged ‘global rankings’

Profiling (or ranking?) universities

January 14, 2014

Right at the end of 2013, while most were still digesting their Christmas dinners and Ireland was more or less closed down, the Higher Education Authority – the funding council of the Irish higher education sector – published a report entitled Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education.  In his introduction to the report, the HEA’s chief executive, Tom Boland, describes its purpose as follows:

‘The development by the HEA of the institutional profiles presented in this report is intended to support higher education institutions in their strategic performance management in order to maximise the contribution of each both to the formation of a coherent higher education system and to national development. This on-going work is therefore fundamental to the implementation of the national strategy, particularly in respect of the imperative to align institutional strategies and national priorities, and to foster and clarify mission-diversity. Rather than reflecting any desire to instigate a ranking system, this report signals the HEA’s intention to work in partnership with all higher education institutions to ensure that the system as a whole advances the national priorities set out by the Government—for economic renewal, social cohesion and cultural development, public sector reform, and for the restoration and enhancement of Ireland’s international reputation.’

The bulk of the report then contains metrics for each institution, including student data, research performance and financial information. So for example we learn that it costs, on average, €10,243 p.a. to educate a student in an Irish university, with the cost ranging in individual institutions from €8,765 in NUI Maynooth to €11,872 in University College Cork. We also find out that the student/staff ratio in Irish institutions ranges from 19.5:1 in Dublin City University to 30.1:1 in NUI Maynooth. In research terms the institutions’ citation impact ranges from 0.6 in the University of Limerick to 1.7 in Trinity College Dublin, with most other universities clustering around the world average of 1.0.

What does this kind of information tell us? Or more particularly, to what use will it be put? Tom Boland emphasises in the passage quoted above that the intention is not to ‘instigate a ranking system’, though others could of course use the metrics to do just that. It can of course be used, as the HEA suggests, by institutions themselves ‘in their strategic performance management’ (presumably in setting and assessing key performance indicators), or as they also suggest to assess whether institutions are advancing government priorities.

In fact, university ‘profiling’ is all the rage, and not just in Ireland. The European Union’s ‘U-Multirank’ project, which is supposed to go live early this year, is something similar:

‘Based on empirical data U-Multirank will compare institutions with similar institutional profiles and allow users to develop personalised rankings by selecting indicators in terms of their own preferences.’

This too will, or so it seems to me, be an exercise in institutional profiling, presenting metrics that can be used to generate comparisons, i.e. rankings.

I don’t really doubt that as recipients of public money universities should present transparent data as to how this is being spent and what value is being generated by it. But comparisons between institutions based on such data always carry some risk. So for example, DCU’s student/staff ratio looks more favourable because the university has a much larger focus on science and engineering than other Irish universities, and laboratory work requires more staff input. NUI Maynooth is ‘cheap’ because the main bulk of its teaching is in the humanities, which are less resource-intensive. This information may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, who may therefore be driven to questionable conclusions. Ironically some of these risks are not so prominent in the more mature league tables, such as the Times Higher Education global rankings, which will already have allowed for such factors in their weightings. The raw data are more easily misunderstood.

It seems to me that institutional profiling is not necessarily preferable to rankings. And it could be open to mis-use.

Global rankings: the awe, the envy, the hate, the fear

June 18, 2011

If university rankings have become something of an industry, it is almost as nothing compared with the industry of assessing and (usually) criticising rankings. League tables are everywhere, but they are not as ubiquitous as the critiques of them. In fact if I were compiling a new table I would be pretty distraught if I couldn’t attract a heap of robust denunciations.

Some of these critiques are exercises in hyperbole, and some are more measured. The latest in the latter category is an assessment published by the European Universities Association, Global University Rankings and their Impact. The author, Latvian professor Andrejs Rauhvargers, argues that all the better known league tables really only measure research output, that they pretty much ignore most of the world’s 17,000 or so universities because they use criteria that are irrelevant to them, but that on the other hand they cause universities to try to behave like Harvard or Cambridge (however hopeless that objective might be), thereby destroying diversity of mission.

It is not difficult to sympathise with this perspective, not least because some of his conclusions are correct. But then again, as the author also acknowledges, rankings are popular, and they have focused attention not just on the performance of individual institutions, but perhaps more importantly on national higher education policies and priorities. Countries wanting to be recognised as knowledge societies need their universities to perform well in global rankings.

The truth is, really, that global rankings are here to stay, and that they will continue to recognise scholarly output above anything else, though with some modifiers. Personally I have no great problem with that. I would also be quite relaxed about the impact of global rankings on individual universities. I don’t actually see any destruction of diversity: Harvard is totally different from Caltech, and both are in the top 10 in the key league tables. I would also suggest that aiming for a particular range within the rankings – say, an institutional aim to be in the global top 100, or to be ranked at all – is not sensible. It is far better to pursue an institutional mission in the most excellent way available, and let league table position be a by-product rather than a strategic aim; it is not in any case an aim that institutional strategy alone can deliver. I was of course pleased when my last university, DCU, entered the global top 300 in the Times Higher Education rankings, but it was never one of our strategic aims.

And in the meantime, if rankings increase interest in higher education and encourage the provision or facilitation of resources, then that’s good. For those who don’t make it into the top rankings, that isn’t the end of the world either; many are highly successful and generate considerable income without ever being ranked.

So maybe a good idea for the rankings sceptics is to let go of this obsession and just move on.

The best country?

August 19, 2010

It’s a day for league tables in this blog, but before we get to a university table, here’s one on countries: Newsweek magazine has ranked the world’s countries in accordance with which are the ‘globe’s true national champions’ – meaning which countries are best when you take into account the economy, politics, health and quality of life.’ I guess many people would assume that the Scandinavian countries would do well, and on the whole they do: Finland tops the list, and Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all in the top 10 (Denmark only just). Personally, I confess that Scandinavia attracts me less than seems to be the case with many people. I’m sure I’ll be criticised for this, but for me it’s all just a bit too boring, in a worthy kind of way. But clearly I’m in a minority, and I’ve never been to Finland and do actually feel I might like that country.

The other interesting aspect of the list, at least for me, is that smaller countries do much better in the rankings than larger ones. The top 10 is dominated by countries with comparatively small populations. The United States and Germany, weighing in at numbers 11 and 12, are the highest rated larger countries, just outside the top 10.

The rankings are also broken down into the component criteria. Looking at education. this blog being what it is, Finland also comes in at number 1. But the next four are all non-European, with South Korea getting in at number 2. Interestingly, this is where Ireland scores well, coming in together with the UK at number 8. Deserved? Well, we hope that government policies will allow us to maintain this standing.

Overall, by the way, Ireland stands at number 17. By no means disgraceful.

Incidentally – and I’m sure you wanted to know this – the best country in the world to fly a kite is India, and the best country for sex is the Czech Republic. I can’t vouch for either, but there it is.


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