20 over 500

Youth isn’t everything

Last year it was Times Higher Education but this year it is the turn of QS to produce a ranking of newer universities, presumably on the basis that somehow they suffer in the rankings for not having done enough stuff over their limited histories. Unfortunately, this rather discriminates against older institutions which are also often disadvantaged in the rankings for being, well, old.

So, it’s time to right this wrong by producing the all new top 20 of universities over 500 years old. Let’s hear it for the ancients!

And the good news is that European universities once again dominate and Italy in particular does extremely well. It is also another good year for the University of Bologna, the grandaddy of them all, which is top of the heap for a record-breaking 925th year. Let’s look at the full top 20:

  1. University of Bologna
  2. University of Oxford
  3. University of Cambridge
  4. University of Salamanca
  5. University of Padua
  6. University of Naples
  7. University of Valladolid
  8. University of Murcia
  9. University of Montpelier
  10. University of Macerata
  11. University of Coimbra
  12. University of Alacala
  13. La Sapienza, University of Rome
  14. University of Perugia
  15. University of Florence
  16. University of Camerino
  17. University of Pisa
  18. Charles University of Prague
  19. University of Pavia
  20. Jagiellonian University

Not a huge amount to report here with the top 20 remaining entirely static (as it has done indeed since Poland’s Jagiellonian University opened back in 1364).

Sadly there’s still no place in the top 20 for the august institutions of Heidelberg, Vienna and Turin. And Scotland’s ancients, St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen, also miss out yet again.


Europe as “one higher education space”

The President of Maastricht University argues in a piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network for greater European integration in higher education:

Not before time, the House of Lords in the UK has announced an inquiry into European Union support for universities and student mobility. By now, the vision of a single higher-education space across Europe was supposed to be a reality. But achieving that goal is taking longer than expected.

The idea was that by 2010 students and academic staff would be moving freely between European countries and institutions, secure in the knowledge that the qualifications they achieved would translate between EU member states.

Some significant progress has been made in the 12 years since all this was first envisaged in the Bologna protocol, drawn up by 29 countries across Europe, and in the five years since recognition of common European degree standards was agreed in Lisbon. More than 210,000 students now spend part of their degree abroad through the Erasmus exchange scheme alone, and the number of academics crossing national borders to teach is increasing year on year.

But no-one would argue that we are anywhere near reaching all the goals these two agreements set out. A report last month on the Erasmus scheme showed that one in five students was forced to retake courses and exams after failing to receive full credit for studies abroad, while the European Commission has just put forward new measures to support the aims of the higher education area, including profiling institutions and giving financial support to master’s students studying abroad.

Professor Paul is right to be critical of the slow pace of change. He suggests closer collaboration between a small group of universities with international outlooks from different member states as a pilot project to acheive a more meaningful model for a European education. This would then be the ‘blueprint’ for the new European University.

I’m not sure that we need a new blueprint – there are many excellent internationally-focused universities across Europe and I think it is unlikely that many of them will wish to change their approach because of such work. Greater convergence will happen where it is in the interests of universities to do so. Some change has happened, albeit slowly, towards the Bologna and Lisbon agreements but what all of this does highlight is the difficulty of imposing external standards or structures on autonomous universities where the benefits are not immediately obvious. It is far from clear that a standardised European view of international education is what is needed to deliver a “knowledge-based workforce” for Europe in a singke higher education space.

Another winning QA idea: international standardisation

From the Chronicle

Quest for International Measures of Higher-Education Learning Results Raises Concerns

A fledgling international effort to develop comparable assessment standards for measuring how much students are learning at higher-education institutions throughout the world is provoking concern from several quarters, even though the project is still in its preliminary stages.

The project is being led by the OECD and it seems that at a meeting of education ministers they were a bit short of discussion topics over dinner:

the apparent dearth of available data on student-learning outcomes prompted discussion about how to fill that void. “It became evident that there are a lot of measurements about research outcomes at institutions of higher education, but what about the learning outcomes?” said Barbara Ischinger, director for education at the organization, which is known as the OECD.


“The notion of measuring students’ achievement within the United States has been very controversial,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. “The notion of developing a mechanism to do it across the world seems orders of magnitude more controversial.”

(which is putting it mildly)

The OECD has held two meetings of about a dozen experts this year, with a third scheduled for next month in Seoul, South Korea. “We’ve started to exchange information and views about existing assessment programs in some countries,” said Ms. Ischinger. “It is now shaping up more into a direction of what could be done in terms of assessing generic-skills competencies, such as analytical reasoning, critical thinking, and also discipline-related competencies — for instance, in the natural sciences and engineering.”

But this is hard enough to achieve within disciplines, it’s pretty challenging at the institutional level and next to impossible in any meaningful way in a national context. It is difficult to imagine quite how generic these things are going to be when articulated in a (literally) universal way.

No grounds for concern though, it will all be up to us to decide:

According to summaries of the minutes of the first two meetings, the OECD has decided to focus its approach, at least initially, on voluntary participation at the institutional level.