University rankings are questionable at best

23 09 2019

university-rankingMeasuring educational performance is difficult at any stage, especially since most school-level performance indicators are based on ‘standardised’ tests of a few select students in particular years. But if you think that is questionable, you can rest assured that it is a hell of a lot more objective and better quantified than how we rank our universities.

In fact, it is rather stunning how superficial the criteria are for ranking universities, for there are no standardised exams or measures of teaching quality that have been applied to a large-enough section of universities across the world to make any meaningful comparisons. Instead, we tend to rely on brute metrics like the number of high-level academic prizes that employees of a university have won, how many citations they received for their academic papers, and other, highly subjective survey questions regarding the perceived ‘reputation’ of an institution.

As a result, a sceptic might in fact think that all the existing metrics are utter nonsense, especially considering how much advertising from universities appears to be incorporated in the online literature (one could be justified in being concerned about the possibility of undue influence and corruption in this regard 🤔).

While there are many types of university rankings, possibly the three most-recognised and reported are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the (Shanghai) Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings. The first purports to

… judge research-intensive universities (teaching, research, knowledge transfer, international outlook) based on thirteen calibrated performance indicators;

the second

… considers every university with any Nobel Laureates, Fields medalists, Highly Cited Researchers, or papers published in the peer-reviewed scientific journals Nature or Science — the ranking itself includes the number of these prizes won, academic papers index in major citation indices, per-capita academic performance of an institution;

and the third is

… based on academic reputation, citations per faculty member, employer reputation, faculty-student ratio, international faculty ratio, international student ratio.

While none of them could be said to measure the actual quality of education received, the first two at least have probably a more objective set of indicators than the QS system that relies on more subjective indicators based on opinions about ‘reputation’.

If we examine the Shanghai rankings first, it is perhaps forgivable to be swayed by the gross metrics, for here the USA and UK are stand-outs in the sheer number of tertiary institutions ranked in the top 500 (as well as the top 20 and 100). Indeed, the USA boasts 135 universities in the top 500, and the UK has 38 (and so they take the first and second rankings, respectively).

But all other things being equal, one expects countries with large populations to have more universities in the top ranks just by virtue of needing so many tertiary institutions to educate their large populations. If one takes an admittedly crude and probably not-ideal metric of the number of universities in the top 500 divided by the country’s population size, there is a rather different rank resulting.

Here, Sweden comes out on top in terms of the number of top-500 universities per capita,  followed by Australia, Switzerland, Finland, and Denmark. And one could argue then that the USA (and France, Canada, and South Korea) all have lower-than-expected numbers of top-ranked universities just based on their population sizes.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings provides approximately similar gross rankings when considering only the total numbers of top-ranked (this time, in the top 200) universities. Here, the USA and United Kingdom are again the number one and two leaders, but if we do as we did above by taking population size into account, then Switzerland comes out as in the lead, followed by the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and then the UK.

Reputation-based surveys like the QS rankings are probably some of the least-reliable ways to ‘measure’ university performance, but they do provide some regional analyses and breakdowns that are interesting to report. While the reputational winners are again the USA and the UK according to this metric, countries like Switzerland, Singapore, and Australia certainly get honourable mentions. In Asia, Singapore has the top-ranked university, but China has 82 institutions among the top 350, claiming more places than India, South Korea, and Singapore combined. Japan is its nearest competitor (74 in the top 350), with South Korea listed next in line. India is the clear regional under-performer according to this metric.

All these metrics notwithstanding, an excellent university-level education should of course be built on a foundation of excellent early education, and interwoven with first-rate public education. What appears to be missing from the crude ranking systems in play today are how university graduates place in society after their degrees. Do graduates from one university make better decisions for themselves and their society than those graduating from another? Does the education received at one institution cover a broader array of important topics for a sustainable society than from another?

While these sorts of outcomes might never be possible to quantify objectively, my particular opinion is that our university leaders should probably spend less time worrying about their placement in such-and-such ranking system (as has been proposed in detail elsewhere) and instead examine ways to measure the contributions of their graduates to society in general.

If I were to proffer any recommendations at all to students contemplating which universities to send applications to, I would focus on the following:

  1. As a prospective undergraduate, I would look more to the quality of the teaching, the facilities available for teaching, the field excursions on offer, the student amenities, the value for money, and the community ‘vibe’. As an undergraduate, you will be somewhat removed from the ‘research’ side of the university anyway, so this component should be less important than the teaching environment.
  2. As a prospective postgraduate student (Masters, PhD), I would recommend that while the research quality of an institution is more important for you, the most relevant aspect is the ‘quality’ of your supervisor(s). Is she well-known in the field? Does he have a good reputation among his peers and previous students? What do the postdocs have to say about Professor X or Y? How much and where has she published? Is there a sufficient funding platform in place for you to do your work? It is thus far more important to focus on the individual(s) with whom you’ll be working than on the institution’s perceived ‘quality’ per se.

CJA Bradshaw



One response

26 09 2019
Rod Holden



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