Posted tagged ‘league tables’

Can teaching quality inform the league tables?

October 26, 2010

Now that the autumn season of university rankings is over, it may be worth reflecting a little on what they do or do not tell us, and what merit there may be in them. As is obvious from much academic commentary worldwide, and indeed from comments posted by readers in this blog, many in the higher education community do not like league tables and believe they play a negative role in developing universities. However, what is pretty much beyond doubt is that the rankings are here to stay and, for better or for worse, will continue to influence potential students, academics themselves and external stakeholders.

One question in particular is however worth asking: if teaching is still the core activity of most universities, how useful are rankings, given that on the whole they pay little or no attention to this? Just one teaching-related metric tends to have an impact, and that is the student to teacher ratio.  This does tell us something about each institution, but it is based on what is now perhaps a financially non-viable assumption, i.e. that universities should strive to keep classes as small as at all possible, and that larger classes suggest poorer quality. The latter may well be true, but financial pressures are pushing everyone that way, and we need better ways now of differentiating between institutions in terms of teaching quality.

The publishers of the QS World University Rankings have set out the dilemma as follows:

‘In our opinion teaching quality, as opposed to teaching commitment, cannot be effectively ranked, because there are no independent experts and no suitable surrogate metrics.’

As is often said, the things that get measured get done. If rankings move into a new generation and neglect teaching quality, then academics will take their cue from that and will focus on whatever it is that gets results in the tables (chiefly research). It is urgently required that we address this and that we find acceptable ways of factoring in teaching quality.

And some more rankings …

September 13, 2010

Yes, I know that everyone is probably fed up with league tables right now, but then I did say this was the month for them. The latest ones that could be of interest are the annual US News and World Report rankings of American universities; and the Sunday Times league table of British universities. The latter will, I believe, also issue an Irish version of their rankings, probably next week.

And the Times Higher Education world university rankings are due out this week.

Want another global league table?

January 29, 2010

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.

So what do we think of league tables?

August 23, 2008

I suppose if we are honest, we like them when we do well and we pour scorn on them when we don’t.

University league tables have been a feature of some countries for a while. In the United States, the league table published by US News and World Report has been influential for some time, while in the UK a number of league tables are published annually. There are now also several world rankings of universities, with the best known being the league table produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education.

I was a Professor at the University of Hull when the first British league tables were published, and at the time everyone poured scorn on the exercise. But what quickly became clear was that our students, stakeholders and partners took them very seriously indeed, and by now the significance of league tables is hardly ever questioned. It may be the case that we are critical of how some of the information that informs the tables is weighted or processed, but we accept that league tables are here to stay. And on the whole, those who want to come to our universities or do business with them are entitled to know how we compare with others.

Ireland has not performed well in the international rankings, although some of the universities (including DCU) have seen their position improve significantly of late. But what is clear in particular is that the areas in which we are relatively weak will not get noticeably better until we are much more generously resourced and funded. If our standing in the tables in turn has an impact on knowledge-intensive investment in Ireland, as it almost certainly does, we need to ensure that we continue to move up the tables. The government’s recent announcements of funding cuts do not, for the moment, make that development likely.


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