Posted tagged ‘world rankings’

Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

February 26, 2014

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.

Taking charge of your own university rankings

April 15, 2011

Whenever I raise the topic of university rankings, I always get readers who, either in comments made here or in emails sent offline, will suggest that I really shouldn’t be paying so much attention to them or encouraging their authors. I know very well that many academics are very sceptical about league tables and don’t believe that they reflect any sort of reality; or they suspect that rankings prompt inappropriate behaviour by university managers, or in some other way undermine academic integrity.

In reality, however, league tables are part of the landscape, and this is so in part because those who want to enter into any kind of relationship with universities – whether as students or as faculty or as business partners or as donors – take them seriously and want to have them as a guide. We may wish that it were otherwise, but it isn’t. This being so, we need to engage with them, and in that way help to ensure that they are reasonable and accurate and transparent. So for example, the transformation over the past year or two of the Times Higher Education world rankings owes a lot to academic interaction with the journal and with the company they selected to manage the project.

The best known world rankings – those run by Times Higher Education and by Shanghai Jiao Tong University – have one important thing in common: the global top 10 universities are exclusively American and British. This is tolerated by Asian institutions that believe they are rising up the tables and are biding their time, but it disturbs the European Union and its member states.  In both rankings the top non-British EU university only comes in at number 39 (French in each table, but not the same university).

Because of this the EU has set out to design its own rankings, to be known as U-Multirank. The thinking behind this is that the established league tables are too much focused on research outputs, and in particular on science research; they neglect teaching and don’t encourage diversity of mission, and they drive universities into strategies that they don’t have the means to deliver. So the new rankings are to be weighted differently, so that the resulting table would be more balanced; and moreover they are to allow users to design and weight their own criteria, so that students (say) can create their own league table that more accurately reflects the strengths they are looking for in considering universities.

Can this work? In my view, no – probably not. Rankings are not really meant to provide a method of institutional profiling, but rather are designed to set out a kind of reputational gold standard. They are not the answer to the question ‘what kind of institution is this?’ – rather, they answer the question ‘what does the world think of this institution?’ This may not be a scientific answer, or else all rankings would give us the same results, but it is an attempt at standardising external evaluation. Also, too many people will think of U-Multirank as an attempt to support the somewhat lesser known European universities and design the rules to suit them.

Still, if you’re interested, the U-Multirank project is coming to the end of a feasibility evaluation and, if this supports the idea (as it will), it will be rolled out some time over the next year or two. It will be interesting to see whether it attracts support. I suspect that it will not displace the pre-eminence of Times Higher.

World rankings

October 8, 2009

Today sees the publication of the QS/Times Higher Education world university rankings, and Irish universities have done well. Five of the seven are in the top global 300, ranked as follows (last year’s position in brackets): TCD 43 (48); UCD 89 (108); UCC 207 (226); NUI Galway 243 (368); DCU 279 (302). Though some academics are sceptical about any league tables, nevertheless the improvement in the rankings for all the Irish institutions is welcome.

However, the reality is that in the current funding environment it is unlikely that these positions can be sustained, let alone improved further. The cuts currently being applied are likely to have a significant impact on the relevant metrics, so that the international competitiveness of Irish universities will be compromised. It may of course be that this is a price we simply have to accept. But given the known impact that the quality of the universities has on decisions on foreign direct investment, there is something dangerous about the risk we may be taking.

The resourcing and funding of universities in times of recession is a topic that needs to be be discussed more urgently. It is to be hoped that the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, will now move swiftly to disclose and subject to analysis his proposal for tuition fees and related matters.

A German lesson?

August 19, 2009

In the discussion on a recent post here there was a brief exchange on German universities. In this I suggested that German universities under-perform in international terms. Indeed if you look at the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education, German universities are not prominent. In fact, Germany’s number 1 institution is Heidelberg University, which comes in at number 57 (actually Ireland’s top university is ranked higher, though I forget which one that is). And the only other German university in the top 100 is the Technical University of Munich at number 78.

There are a number of interesting questions one could ask about this. Why does a country that has the world’s fourth largest economy not score more highly in higher education? Why is the country that arguably produced the model for modern higher education in the Humboldt framework not a torchbearer for excellence? What is it that they are doing wrong, and what do they need to do to correct it? 

I also wonder whether this casts some doubt on one German institutional structure which is sometimes thought to have been a progressive and imaginative initiative – the Wissenschaftsrat (translated on its own web page as the rather clunky ‘German Council of Science and Humanities’). This body is supposed to review and monitor higher education policy and propose improvements and reform. It has a ‘Scientific Committee’ and an ‘Administrative Committee’ – the former looks at broad educational and research issues, but the latter proposes actual measures; and this latter committee is composed not of academics but officials.

Perhaps the lesson is this – or at any rate this is what I am wondering, subject to correction: that Germany has not hit upon the idea of university autonomy, but rather has a centralised system of public and political control (though admittedly devolved to state governments, or Länder). And maybe this underscores again that global excellence cannot be achieved on that model. The chairman of the Wissenschaftsrat recently suggested in an interview that individual universities should find their own niche and specialisms so as to excel; but if that is the answer, it is only achievable by allowing each institution to develop its own special strategy on an autonomous basis, subject obviously to proper accountability.

But as we struggle in Ireland with questions about the appropriate level of monitoring and control, the German lesson may be a valuable one. We have an opportunity to continue to develop our higher education system so that it may punch above its weight internationally and attract both knowledge and investment to Ireland. We should not put that at risk; the German model does not work.


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