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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World Education: The New Powerhouse – Going Global 2011 §1

Some comments on Going Global 2011 – World Education: The New Powerhouse?

I was fortunate to be present at the British Council’s Going Global Conference in Hong Kong earlier in March. There were about 1,000 delegates there and as might be expected for this kind of event many of the presentations were high level and whilst some were pretty strategic others felt rather abstract.

There was a distinct UK flavour to some of the discussions and the particular current domestic issues relating to the new English fees regime and Tier 4 student immigration did intrude in a number of sessions. Despite this there was a lot which was of interest including some really good perspectives from other nations.

The opening session on “world education, the new powerhouse” (does this really mean anything?) had a number of set piece presentations from Ministers and then contributions from Hong Kong to Brazil to Africa:

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, Chief Executive of Hong Kong spoke about the idea of HK as a regional higher education hub. However, you get the real impression that they won’t be just another regional hub, but rather that they have the foundations, the location, the money, strong institutions and the real vision to do make this happen. Two other points of note here: first, education is the Hong Kong government’s single biggest spending priority and accounts for 25% of annual expenditure (25%!); second, Harrow School (yes that Harrow) is intending to open a branch campus in HK.

Professor Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Convener of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, spoke about the changing patterns of international HE and reinforced the commitment to the idea of a regional hub. Hong Kong universities are offering a real international education not the more traditional Eastern model. And, lest anyone doubt the intent here, he noted that HKUST was aiming for 20% international students, increasing international study opportunities for its own undergraduates and more collaboration with universities in mainland China. HKUST is still a young institution but is an impressive one and hugely ambitious: “We are in aggressive recruitment mode for international staff and students”.

Three other international perspectives of note here. Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary-General and Chief Executive, Association of African Universities, Ghana spoke about the challenges for Africa. It was a very long list and the challenges exist across the board. Collaboration and a continent-wide academic framework including mobility and mutual recognition is the way forward. He also noted the importance of using ICT to help the growth of HE in Africa. Ultimately this was an optimistic prospectus but the massive scale of challenges here remains rather daunting.

Dr Javaid Laghari, Chair of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, reported that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve its ambitions for having two universities in the world top 100. Pakistan was seeking to grow PhD numbers significantly, including through split PhDs with foreign universities. And all of this was happening in the context of being in the ‘frontline of the war on terror’. Again we were given an optimistic outlook but these are really challenging circumstances in which to be growing and strengthening HE.

Dr Carlos Alexandre Netto. President of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, gave a sense of the huge scale of HE in his country. With over 2,000 institutions but only a 15% age participation rate there is ongoing major growth in public university enrolments. Most HE students are at private universities though and growth in student numbers is actually being funded through loans for private university study. A major quality assurance operation now been through its first cycle. Overall, left with the impression of a system of extraordinary scale.

Between them Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter and President, Universities UK, and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, sought to paint a positive picture of UKHE. The THE report on the event notes the following:

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are “not factually accurate” and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector’s reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government’s funding changes in England was “rather different to the headlines”.
He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being “welcoming” to international students despite visa restrictions.
Professor Smith’s message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: “We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now.”

Both were therefore arguing there would be more money in the system, international fees would not be tripled (although the contrast with David Cameron’s assertion in China last year that international fees would actually be reduced to bring them in line with domestic fees was noted by the anoraks) and international students would continue to be extremely welcome in the UK (although this is somewhat at odds with the Government’s proposed Tier 4 visa changes). Willetts said he was embarrassed by small number of UK students going abroad and says Government was trying to help with this (but it was far from clear how this help would be offered). Steve Smith meanwhile added that the revised visa proposals which would be published soon would be good news for universities and international students. We’ll see.

World education may or may not be the new powerhouse but the challenges in some parts of the globe remain huge and in other areas the difficulties are self-imposed. Overall though there seems to be a strong degree of consensus that the future of HE is global.