Entering the university rankings season

The time of year for university league tables has now begun, and first out of the gate are the Shanghai Jiao Tong university rankings. They can be consulted here, but be warned that traffic seems to be very heavy and their server doesn’t respond well to the pressure; most of the time over the past day or two access has been impossible.

According to the website, the following factors are used to rank the universities:

‘ARWU uses six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index, and per capita performance with respect to the size of an institution.’

The authors emphasise the objective and transparent nature of these criteria, but it is clear that they are heavily science-focused and that they also necessarily favour very wealthy research intensive institutions. It could also be said that they favour US universities, but in fairness every credible league table would have to do that.

In fact, according to these rankings, 17 of the world’s top 20 universities are American, with only Cambridge, Oxford and Tokyo breaking the monotony. The top 3 are Harvard, Berkeley and Stanford. The British are the second most successful, though way behind the US. European universities do make some appearance, though mainly in the lower reaches of the top 100.

And Ireland? Only three feature at all  in the top 500 (TCD, UCD and UCC), but not in the top 200.

When the Jiao Tong rankings first appeared in 2003, and for the three or four years afterwards, they were seen as the definitive league table. That particular status has now probably been accorded to the Times Higher Education rankings, but the Shanghai ones are still influential. So how can Ireland improve? Only one way, really: win Nobel prizes. It may be time to focus our investment.

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8 Comments on “Entering the university rankings season”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Presumably TCD will benefit significantly from having ETS Walton as an alumnus and former staff member even allowing for the declining weight with respect to time.
    But he retired in 1974 and died in 1995 so why should it matter? Of course this issue is not peculiar to this one individual.
    And why give the same weight to Fields Medals as Nobel Prizes when the former are only awarded every four years and only for people not over 40? And if you have the most brilliant sociologist, how does that count? Does Harvard benefit from having Kissinger (risibly given a Nobel Peace Prize) as a former faculty member?
    One could go on (and on) about the arbitrary nature of these rankings, they are clearly daft. I don’t understand why academics, who of all people should be able to sniff out nonsense, fall for this crap.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    And more fundamentally why are such criteria important ? Many of these are similarity measures indicating how alike Harvard or Cambridge other institutions are , rather than measuring things that are important, and of course many of those are immeasurable! I was going to suggest, in retaliation, that we start an international league table of politicians’ performance but then I remembered yesterday’s news that Brian Cowen is an international star…. 😉

  3. NiamhMB Says:

    If you’re having difficulty accessing the Shanghai Jiao Tong university ranking website and would like to see the details of this ranking’s methodology plus the breakdown of the results for TCD, UCD & UCC please see: http://www.slideshare.net/NiamhMB/shanghai-ranking2010-4978308

    The methodology of this ranking is notoriously flawed – I’ve listed a few of the issues on one of the slides. For more see (for example):
    Michaela Saisana (2008)European Commission JRC Report: Higher Education Rankings: Robustness Issues and Critical Assessment (http://crell.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Publications/CRELL%20Research%20Papers/EUR23487.pdf

  4. I believe that to receive a Nobel prize in the sciences one must be nominated by a former winner. This explains the US preponderance in the field. The best way to win a Nobel prize is to begin your career as a graduate student of a Nobel winner.
    So if you wish to win Nobel prizes to increase your rankings, first job is to poach – at any price – previous winners. Then wait 20/30 years for their graduate students to come up, do useful work and have that work recognised.

    Also in agreement that the rankings do seem to measure similarity with Harvard or Cambridge, much like University and school exams measure a students similarity to their teacher. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander, is I believe, the expression.

    • Vincent Says:

      Well yes, but that’s what we should have been doing for the last twenty years rather that paying a kings ransom to the current lot. Who cares if the average head of dept’ ‘needs’ to live in Foxrock or Killiney. And like with all the expensive medics if they are such a gift they are welcome to go.
      And why the hell are we paying an aged Italian that amount of money for managing what amounts to a forth rate side.

  5. NiamhMB Says:

    If you’re having trouble accessing the website for the Shanghai Ranking, this slideshow may help: http://www.slideshare.net/NiamhMB/shanghai-ranking2010-4978308

    Shows details of the methodology used, breakdown of the results for Irish universities, some issues with the methodology. The latter is notoriously flawed.

    See also: Michaela Saisana/European Commission JRC Report (2008): Higher Education Rankings: Robustness Issues and Critical Assessment (http://crell.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Publications/CRELL%20Research%20Papers/EUR23487.pdf

  6. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I am dubious of rankings too, but that doesn’t change the fact that a high ranking has the inherent benefit when it comes to marketing and promoting the university.

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