For the last few years the late summer and early autumn has been the season for university world rankings. This season kicks off in August with the Academic Ranking of World Universities (published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University), and a month or so later we have two sets of World University Rankings (one published by Quacquarelli Symonds, and the other by Times Higher Education).
There are also others that, at least for now, we can disregard; and there is the EU’s U-Multirank project, which describes itself as a ‘multi-dimensional ranking of higher education institutions’, and which says that its first (2014) publication will look like this:
‘U-Multirank is a new multidimensional, user-driven approach to international ranking of higher education institutions. The dimensions it includes are teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement. Based on empirical data U-Multirank will compare institutions with similar institutional profiles and allow users to develop personalised rankings by selecting indicators in terms of their own preferences.’
The purpose appears to be the production of a variable ranking system that users program to reflect their own priorities; meaning perhaps that most institutions will find a way of extracting from this a league table that has them in an attractive position.
But back to the existing autumn show of rankings. What do they tell us? One of the problems with them is that they seem to tell very different stories. All of them agree on one thing: that US universities still clearly lead the field, followed by British institutions. But when you get to the detail, there is little agreement. Each has a different leading university. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is global number 1 in one league table, number 6 in another, and number 10 in the third one. And when you get just a little further down the list, the variations are much greater. And as the Irish universities have shown this year, in one league table they can go up significantly while, in the same year, dropping like a stone in another.
So are league tables really just unreliable? Are the U-Multirank folks right, and the best thing is for you and me to compile our own rankings?
The point is that, like it or not, we are in the age of rankings. People want to have an objective view of quality and merit, and they will go for something that looks as if it offers that. Even when we criticise the league tables, as at some point we all do, we still play the game they set us. And in truth, that’s what we have to do. So then, choose your favourite league table, and see how you can use it to best effect. But don’t be mesmerised by it, and for goodness sake don’t construct your strategy around it.