Posted tagged ‘Shanghai Jiao Tong’

The rankings season

September 5, 2011

The annual cycle of university business has traditionally been dominated by the key student recruitment dates, the beginning of the academic year, the calendar of meetings, examinations, and conferences. Over recent years another major element has been added: the university rankings. Domestic and global rankings come round at certain times of year, and the period from mid-August to the end of September sees the publication of the three main global rankings: the Academic Rankings of World Universities (the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings), the QS World University Rankings, and the Times Higher Education World Rankings.

The first two of these have now been published, and the Times Higher rankings (now increasingly seen as the gold standard) will be issued shortly. The QS rankings are issued today, and once again they are dominated by American and British universities. This year the world’s top university, according to this league table, is Cambridge University, followed by Harvard and MIT. Of the top 20 universities, 13 are American, 5 are British, and Canada and Switzerland each have one. The top non-British EU university, the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, comes in at number 33. The top Irish university, Trinity College Dublin, is now at number 65, followed by University College Dublin at number 134. All Irish universities have dropped substantially in the rankings, except University College Cork and my former institution Dublin City University, both of which have recorded a very slight rise. The top Scottish university is the University of Edinburgh, at number 20.

The publication of these rankings always brings with it a general murmur of dissatisfaction from the academic community, and indeed this is understandable. One of the least useful things any university can do with rankings is to use them as a strategic goal: our goal is to be a top 20, or top 50, or top-whatever university. Such targets are wholly meaningless, as they depend too much on what others are doing and how the methodology of the rankings is adjusted. But that does not mean that the rankings are useless or wrong. They express an important picture of how universities, and national systems, are developing, and they provide useful information and institutional critiques. Rankings should not be misused, but they are here to stay.

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.

Entering the university rankings season

August 19, 2010

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.

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.


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