Want another global league table?

As we all know, global university rankings have become a big thing. The game was initiated in 2003 by the Academic Rankings unit of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and because this was the first time there had been any such rankings they attracted some attention. However, before too long commentators became sceptical of the criteria used in these rankings, which in particular are weighted heavily towards institutions whose graduates or staff have Nobel Prizes of Fields Medals. This means that a university, to stand much of a chance of getting a good position in the table, must be large, have a particular focus on science and technology and be quite old (to allow for an accumulation of such prizes and medals). For the record, the highest placed Irish university in this table is Trinity College Dublin, coming in somewhere between 200 and 300 in the 2009 rankings.

Then came the Times Higher Education global rankings, which attracted a lot of attention because the above restrictions of the Shanghai table did not apply and a broader methodology was used. Irish universities did much better, and in the most recent rankings all seven Irish universities were in the top 500, with TCD and UCD in the top 100 and NUI Cork NUI Galway and DCU in the top 300. However, these rankings too have been criticised, in part because  a significant criterion in the table is the (maybe subjective) evaluation of the institutions by peers and stakeholders. Time Higher have announced that a new methodology (not yet disclosed) will be applied from 2010.

Both of these rankings have one thing in common: the universities that dominate them are American and British, though in recent years some Asian universities have improved their positions. This has caused some countries to consider creating their own rankings, though this is unlikely to attract much support elsewhere, as the suspicion will always be that the criteria will be tailored to result in a positive outcome for that country’s universities.

One recent attempt to generate a new league table comes from Russia, and is entitled Global Universities Rankings. And indeed the first thing you see in the table is the emergence of a Russian university, Lomonosov’s Moscow State University, coming in at number 5 in the world, ahead of Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge. The top Irish university in these rankings is TCD at number 230, with UCC at 295. The others make no appearance in the top 500.

Maybe all these league table are just a lot of wind, and we should stop bothering with all this stuff. On the other hand, rankings can influence all sorts of things, including foreign direct investment, so whatever we may want to think, they matter. It is therefore desirable to see a league table with a well thought out methodology that cannot be manipulated by the institutions themselves by any method other than driving forward to create excellence. Personally, I hope that the re-worked Times Higher rankings deliver on that.

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6 Comments on “Want another global league table?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Many years ago I was sitting in my thesis advisor’s office.As we chatted he perused his mail including a paper on ranking UK economics departments. He went straight to the results at the back and saw that the “top department” was somewhere fairly non-descript. (I forget where exactly but somewhere you knew wasn’t that good). He then turned back to the title page to see where the authors were from. Guess? Now guess what he did it with the paper?
    I think we should do the same with those Russian rankings.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I wish these people were more open; if THES opened all their data, we could do cluster studies, component analysis and so on: the peer review scores contain lots of information and perhaps the least interesting thing we can do with it is weight it and bury it in producing a ranking, beyond the headlines surely it would be more interesting to use it to classify and describe universities rather than just ordering them.

  3. belfield Says:

    Can’t say I’m a fan of league tables. They do seem to have huge attraction in policy terms though so perhaps having a sound methodology and some resistance to manipulation is the best that can be hoped for. I just wish they were more subtle and nuanced.

  4. cormac Says:

    Is it not a bit like comparing cities? Different universities emphasise or shine in different areas, so one chooses a university that has a good reputation in the particular subject.(e.g. Trinity has a well-regarded degree in music for those interested in the theoretical/compositional side of things, UL for the performance side, etc).
    When I did my postdoc in Aarhus university in Denmark, they had more publications that year than Harvard, yet it never features in such lists.

  5. Alan Says:

    The University Ranking system has virtually emerged as a new religion in South Korea (where I work as the sole non-Korean person in my Uni Dept and possibly the only Irish person in this city).

    The top Universities here are even using it as their primary aim for medium term planning.

    e.g Seoul National University’s Top 10 by 2025 Plan

    Postech University’s top 20 by 2020 strategy http://www.postech.ac.kr/e/
    Go to the About Postech menu and choose Vision 2020 to see the details.

    Am I wrong in thinking that a relative marking system which has a large degree of subjectivity (and where the metrics are not yet fixed) is a totally inapproprate basis for defining a University management strategy?

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