Posted tagged ‘rankings’

How can we identify the next generation of leading universities?

November 30, 2010

At a recent workshop on university rankings one participant was quoted as having said the following:

‘Universities less than 50 years old fall below the radar of current world university rankings systems. Younger institutions are under-represented in world rankings. Current rankings do not provide information which allows the early identification of universities which are building research activity and intensity.’

First, I cannot help pointing out that the university I led until very recently is definitely younger than 50 and is definitely not below the rankings radar, having entered the global top 300 in 2006. However, the question as to how we might identify the next generation of leaders is an interesting one. Although no university will make it into that group without real world-class research excellence, that may not be the early identifier. If you want to break the hegemony of US Ivy League institutions and Oxbridge I would suggest you need to be different, not an imitator. You need to be an innovator with knowledge, finding new ways to develop higher education both in pedagogy and in scholarship, finding new and better ways of answering society’s questions.

There is a widespread view that one model of university will always dominate. I doubt that.

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.

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.