International world rankings – where do you stand? Going Global 2011 §2

International world rankings – where do you stand?

A belated note on one of the sessions at Going Global earlier this month. This session, on league tables, was for me most enjoyable session but sadly there really was insufficient time for debate. The outline looked good:

As with the economic shifts we have seen over the last decade, changes in education are happening at breathtaking speed. The growing differentiation in the higher education sector in terms of universities’ missions, international strategies, capacities and resources, confronts traditional ways of ‘ranking’ institutions. Contributions from Phil Baty, Times Higher Education world rankings, and John Molony from QS, will present the global trends and explain changes in their ranking methodologies to justify the role of the need for rankings.

This session is designed to take the debate beyond the methodologies, to reflect on concerns on the potential impact of rankings, in such a highly competitive higher education market. Who are the audiences: how are they interpreting the information and for what useful purpose? How seriously are rankings taken by the institutions and personnel on which they pronounce judgement?

Responses from Prof Dzulkifli and Prof Malcolm Grant will debate the impact of rankings from both the perspective of internationally focused university leaders and from an academic community that may well feel disenfranchised from the adulation and denigration associated with fluctuating league tables. Giving an alternative perspective, Dr Kevin Downing, will cite the benefits that can be derived from a University’s world-class standing and success, as reflected in these ranking exercises.

Phil Baty, Deputy Editor of Times Higher Education, spoke passionately in defence of rankings. Whilst acknowledging they were rather crude and had many faults, could never be really objective, don’t reflect the diversity of higher education across the globe, they are here to stay. Phil outlined the rationale for the shift from QS to  Thomson Reuters for its data provision and the ways in which he believed THE had behaved responsibly in relation to rankings. It was a spirited defence which included the now customary declaration “I am a ranker and I am proud!”. Fuller details of Phil’s comments were published in THE article (and he really does need some new puns).

Prof Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice-Chancellor of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, also commented on the many faults of league tables, noting the problems with constructing the concept of quality, the risk of ignoring the complexity of the picture and the fact that rankings generally fail to recognize a holistic view of education. Moreover, they can lead to distortion of institutional priorities, fail to reflect the intangible benefits of HE and can leave the Impression of a linear relationship between the data and rankings.

John Molony, Vice-President, Strategic Planning and Marketing, Quacquarelli Symonds, joined Phil Baty (almost) in defending rankings, arguing that QS was already fulfilling a useful role with its focus on students, and particularly those with a propensity to be mobile students. Students want and need rankings, he argued and, when they work and are used properly, the rankings do provide helpful information. He argued that there will be 7m mobile students by 2020, all of whom would be making a massive investment and needed proper information to inform their decision making. Nevertheless, rankings do need to be handled with care, they do simplify and reduce whilst being open and transparent for users. Finally, he argued that rankings, require universities to be more open and can lead to innovation and new forms of evaluation.

Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost, University College London, sought to demolish league tables and succeeded, at least partially, identifying a number of major “fracture points” including:

  • failure to cope with the diversity of the system and address atypical but excellent institutions such as the LSE
  • the difficulty in picking the indicators make a university world class –  many are intangible and indicators can’t necessarily reflect the real values of an institution
  • we can’t measure many things directly and therefore have to use proxies
  • international league tables do have lots of data, but it is distorting and misleading
  • comparisons compound the problem and can be of limited significance when higher education is so varied.
  • there is a problem with the weighting of indicators and the preconceptions of what university is that this implies.

Damning stuff. He added that we needed to retain academic rigour and should not abandon skepticism when dealing with rankings. We should not sleepwalk into accepting a commercial version of higher education.

Dr Kevin downing, Senior Co-ordinator (Academic Planning and Quality Assurance), City University of Hong Kong, shared many of the reservations expressed by others, noting also that none of the tables took into account community roles nor did teaching enjoy proper coverage. Arguments in favour of rankings did exist including that they were better than the alternatives including  simple subjective judgement. Pragmatically, rankings are inevitable and we need to get used to it.

THE report is here and this and many of the sessions from the conference, including this one, can be seen on the Policy Review TV site.

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