Posted tagged ‘university rankings’

Rank confusion

October 8, 2013

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.

Another university league table

June 3, 2013

Honestly, I have no idea what to say about this one. My university comes in at number 49. And what’s wrong with Salford (or maybe right)?

Are our universities really destined for long term decline?

October 5, 2012

The latest university world rankings have prompted another round of questions about the future global distribution of higher education excellence and strength. The Times Higher Education 2012-13 rankings have seen a little slippage in the position of some universities in the western hemisphere, with Ireland and Scotland both experiencing this phenomenon. Ireland no longer has any university in the top 100 universities globally; Scotland still has one university (Edinburgh) in the top 100, at number 32 (and rising), but other Scottish institutions have fallen, in some cases significantly.

Speaking more generally about UK universities, the Times Higher‘s rankings editor, Phil Baty, remarked:

‘Outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, England’s world-class universities face a collapse into global mediocrity, while investment in top research universities in Asia is starting to pay off.’

While there is indeed some drift, the prediction of a British collapse into mediocrity may be a bit premature. It is absolutely right that some of the emerging countries have made major investments in higher education, as one would expect. But this has not produced any instant challenge for global leadership. The Times Higher top 20 contains only one university not in the United States or the UK, and it is in Switzerland. The top Asian universities (from Japan and Singapore, respectively) come in at number 27 and 29. The top university from a BRIC country (if you exclude Hong Kong) is Peking University, at number 46, and the only other institution from that grouping in the top 100 is also from China, at number 52. And while there are some slight changes from last year in those positions, they are actually not hugely significant. Peking University rose by three places.

Furthermore, the success of universities in China, Singapore, Korea and Japan – and only a very small number of the thousands of Asian universities make it into any rankings at all – is largely based on these institutions ‘westernising’ their educational and research methods and pouring in money. But that hasn’t just started last year; it has been a phenomenon of the past decade, and while the results are certainly there, they are not startling.

It is obvious enough that as some countries make a transition into a more developed economic state, their universities will benefit from more investment and higher levels of ambition. But actually, it is rather remarkable that this has not had a much greater impact on the rankings. Then again, this is not to say that there aren’t issues here to be addressed. The uncertainty about university funding in these islands has certainly had an impact, but so have other factors, including the inconsistencies and peculiarities of migration policies as they affect student movement, and the trend for major companies to seek university links away from the more traditional set.

What may be much more interesting, however, is this: there may be a hint in the rankings that the university of the future is no longer necessarily the ancient, classical, blue-skies-research institution. The new leader, as exemplified in the world’s number 1 university, the California Institute of Technology, may be a more focused, networked and translational university. Apart from Caltech, other institutions that also reflect this profile have climbed up the rankings. As we try to work out what the role of higher education is to be in the future, that may be the more interesting trend.

So where do we want to be on this league table?

June 4, 2012

Well, you probably thought that you had seen all the university rankings, both locally and globally. But think again. A student website,, has produced a league table with a difference: one which measures in which UK universities students have the most sex. The results was assembled from the findings of a survey of 4,656 students in 100 universities. The resulting table has Bangor University in Wales (and we won’t go into the interpretation suggested by the students of the university’s name) at the top, while at the bottom we have the University of Essex. My own university, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, is at number 25, and I have no idea whether this pleases me or whether I’d prefer it somewhere else in the table.

Scotland has only one university in the top 20 (Heriot Watt at number 2), while Wales is dramatically over-represented there with four universities. But it absolutely impossible to identify any particular trend in the rankings. There is no overall difference between pre- and post-1992 universities, or between the regions (except for Wales). So it is possible that the results are a fluke governed purely by the habits of this particular group of students, and that the pattern could change dramatically in a year or two; we shall have to wait and see.

Clearly it is not saying anything very new to point out that there is a fair amount of sex in universities. But this also reminds us that universities need to take seriously issues such as sexual health and personal safety, as well as various codes of ethics.

In the meantime, I suspect that this table is not being highlighted in any university’s PR materials.

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.

Creating a division of elite Euro-universities?

February 6, 2011

If you take a look at the Times Higher Education world university rankings, you will see that, apart from the United Kingdom, only one European country has a university in the global top 20 – and that’s Switzerland, which isn’t even in the European Union.  This has been a source of irritation and concern to some European governments, and partly in consequence there has been a good bit of talk about the idea of creating a new set of rankings devised in Europe (and by implication likely to favour European universities).

Now another idea has been suggested by the President of Maastricht University, Dr Jo Ritzen. The journal Times Higher Education reports that he has called for ‘top European universities to be directly funded through the European Union.’ This would create a European super league that would allow Europe to ‘come higher  with fewer resources’.

Leaving aside for a moment the suggestion that fewer resources would not stand in the way of greater global recognition, I find it hard to believe that having a Euro-elite would raise the performance of Europe’s universities. Furthermore, any such league would immediately be under irresistible pressure to have a balanced membership between the member states, so that Greece, for example would have a right to have one of its universities included (none of which feature in the global top 200).

Also, it would be difficult to be confident that members of this Euro-league would be able to enjoy a coherent funding framework, that they would still find interaction with their local (national) universities to be fruitful, or that the control mechanisms put in place would not err on the size of excessive bureaucracy.

It is of course a perfectly legitimate (if somewhat risky) approach to ignore the league tables altogether. But if they are to be taken seriously, then under-performance will not easily be remedied by setting up a new grouping of universities with a new set of complex regulatory and funding arrangements. I’m not sure that Dr Ritzen’s proposal is a good idea.

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.

Sustainable universities

September 9, 2010

Whatever we may think of university league tables, the evidence from the latest league table – yesterday’s announcement of the QS world rankings – does put one fact into clear relief: that unless we understand that our universities are now seriously under-resourced, and equally critically, under-staffed,  we must expect to see a further serious erosion in Ireland’s standing as a knowledge society. In fact, in the light of the report from the OECD that was also released this week, we know that there is a serious issue with the funding of Ireland’s education system overall, and that this was the case even at the height of the economic boom.

It would be easy to blame the government, or maybe successive governments, for all this, but that would be wrong. In fact, I am inclined to believe that in some way all governments have tried their best to raise the profile of higher education. Furthermore, there have been successes and some good progress, not least through the development of serious research funding from the later 1990s. But as a country we have failed to fund teaching properly, increasing student numbers dramatically while consistently reducing the funding per student. This is not just a government failing, as it has become fairly clear that as a country we are unwilling to pay more tax for this (and in any case, there is no guarantee that any additional tax will be allocated to higher  education or that any such allocation would be secure in times of crisis), and we are also unwilling to have tuition fees. We want our higher education system to be the best in the world, but we want someone else to pay for it. Politicians are merely responding to that and failing to square this circle. I seriously doubt that another government would do this any better.

This has been going on for some time, and it has reached a point where, in 2010, on average the money received per student from government (the sum of the fee paid by the government and each student’s share of the recurrent grant) is about €1,400 less than the cost of a reasonable quality education. Faced with this situation, universities can either adjust their programmes to fit the reduced revenue (meaning that they will offer lower quality education) or go into deficit, without any realistic hope of recovering that deficit any time in the future. The impact of all this was very clearly set out by TCD’s Provost, Dr John Hegarty, in yesterday’s ‘Morning Ireland’ programme on RTE radio.

In the meantime, the government’s ’employment control framework’, under which universities have had to reduced staffing by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010, is seriously affecting the student-staff ratios, which are a important factor in global rankings.

None of this is inevitable, though we are very close to it being irreversible in the near future. But we must start by facing up to the fact that what we are doing now is going one way only: towards increasingly speedy decline. But we have the people, the ingenuity, the capacity for innovation, and the passion for learning that can make it all work. Indeed against all the odds we have managed to hold on to reasonable levels of quality, though increasingly by applying sticking plaster and window putty. But it could all work. All we need is a more realistic approach to resourcing. That’s all we need. Really.

Global rankings: the QS version

September 8, 2010

At midnight Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) released their university world rankings. Just to recap, QS were until last year the partners of Times Higher Education in their world rankings. Times Higher then parted company with QS and entered into a partnership with Thomson Reuters – their rankings are due out next week on September 16, and they yesterday released details of the criteria they have used.

But back to QS. The first thing to note is that their international number 1 university is the University of Cambridge (UK), which has moved ahead of Harvard and thus occupy the top spot for the first time. Indeed it is the first time in any league table that the highest position has not gone to an American university. However, in the top 20 the general distribution has not changed: the US is there 13 times, the UK 4 times, and the remaining three slots go to Switzerland, Canada and Australia. The highest placed continental European university is ETH Zürich at number 18. After that, European universities are fairly well represented in the top 50, but Germany doesn’t make an appearance until number 51 (Heidelberg).

The latter is just one place above the highest placed Irish university, Trinity College, which has dropped 9 places to number 52. There is also a drop for UCD, down from 89 last year to 114 in 2010. On the other hand, UCC has improved its position and has entered the top 200 for the first time at number 184.

It is hard to know for sure whether we are witnessing a trend, but the signs are that Ireland’s universities are, in terms of global rankings, in decline. That this is so is not unexpected, and I suspect that when the details are analysed we will find that one of the key factors will be the student-staff ratio. For two years now student numbers have grown, while due to government rules in the ’employment control framework’ staff numbers have dropped. The necessary impact of this is a decline in the international standing of Irish universities, and the consequences could be serious for Ireland in its plans for a ‘smart economy’.

During the week in which Ireland has also been found by the OECD to be under-investing in education more generally, we are facing a crisis that needs to be addressed positively and urgently. No matter how unpleasant this may seem to some politicians and some others, we need to grasp the nettle of university funding – and at least from my perspective I son’t see how we can succeed in this while we rule out tuition fees; the taxpayer simply does not have the resources to solve this problem on their own.

If we want to arrest an increasingly apparent and potentially long-term decline of our education system, and with it the erosion of any ambitions to be a knowledge society and economy, we had better act now.

Rankings, again – new and renewed

September 7, 2010

I know that many academics sigh whenever university rankings and league tables are mentioned, but whatever we think of them they are significant in the eyes of key stakeholders. A few days ago I pointed out that September was going to be a month in which these tables would feature prominently, and in fact even more is happening than I had thought at the time.

On Sunday September 5 the Sunday Independent produced its own Irish league table (as far as I can see, this is not available online). Although it is not absolutely clear how they were weighted and assessed, the metrics the paper appears to have used are the percentage of Firsts and 2.1s, the research budget or income (the terms appear to be used interchangeably), the university’s budget deficit (presumably as a negative), the median CAO points for entry (which I would regard as a very doubtful metric for these purposes), the student-staff ratio, and the average rent (where?). Taking all this in whatever way they may have done so, the rankings are: (1) Trinity College Dublin; (2) University College Dublin; (3) University College Cork; (4) NUI Galway; (5) Dublin City University; (6) NUI Maynooth; and (7) University of Limerick.

And now, the next table to be published (unexpectedly, as it had been expected for October) this week will be the world university rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds Limited  (QS) – who until last year produced the Times Higher Education league table. Watch this space.