The future of university rankings

By Phil Baty –

Let us be frank. University rankings are crude. They simply cannot capture – let alone accurately measure – many of the things that matter most in higher education: how a great lecturer can transform the lives of their students for example, or how much free enquiry enhances our society. They can never be objective, because their indicators and methodologies are based on the subjective judgment of the compilers. At their worst, university rankings can impose uniformity on a sector that thrives on diversity. They can pervert university missions and distract policymakers. When they are done badly, they can be manipulated for unfair gain. They can mislead the public.

I admit all of this even though I am myself a ‘ranker’. Indeed, I am the Editor of the world’s most widely-cited (and perhaps most controversial) global university ranking system – The Times Higher Education World University Rankings – and I am proud of what I do. Why? Because I believe that as long as rankers are responsible and transparent, university rankings can be a positive force in higher education.

Rankings can help us understand and find a way through the dramatic changes we are facing. Speaking at the World 100 Reputation Network conference at the University of Hong Kong last year, Peter Upton the Director of British Council, Hong Kong said:

“We are living through one of those tipping points where in five years, [commentators will say] that this was the period when the landscape changed for ever, when the speed of reputational growth and decline suddenly accelerated.

We all accept that higher education is borderless – ideas know no boundaries, do not accord any significance to geography and maps – and that is equally true of reputations and university rankings.”

The facts of rapid internationalisation are clear: 3.3 million students now study outside their home country; UK institutions have 162 satellite campuses on overseas soil; almost half of all UK research papers are now written with a co-author from overseas. We are in a world of global education hubs, of joint degrees, faculty and student mobility schemes, franchised programmes, global research networks and bi-national universities.

We are also entering a world of mass higher education, with new forms of delivery and new providers of higher education, changing the traditional world order. But there is an information gap, with a growing need for clear – and yes, easily accessible – comparative information for all stakeholders. National governments need information when they are investing billions into universities to drive the knowledge-based sectors of the economy. Industry needs help in looking where to invest R&D money and where to find the top talent. Higher education leaders need to understand the shifting global sands and to improve strategy and performance. Newly emerging institutions, often in developing countries, need help in clearly demonstrating their excellence to the world, against better known and more established brands. Faculty, seeking to foster new research partnerships and consider career options, need help in identifying new opportunities. And perhaps most importantly, in a global market, students and their parents looking to make the right choice of degree course, wherever in the world it might be delivered, need help. This is crucial as the world gets smaller, global demand for higher education gets bigger, and choices become more bewildering.

Here to stay

As long as those who compile them are responsible and transparent, rankings have a positive role to play. Make no mistake, rankings are here to stay. Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology, has cataloged the extraordinary growth and influence of rankings in her new book Rankings and the Battle for World-Class Excellence: How Rankings are re-shaping higher education. She writes:

“There is a growing obsession with university rankings around the world. What started as an academic exercise in the early 20th Century in the US became a commercial ‘information’ service for students in the 1980s and the progenitor of a ‘reputation race’ with geo-political implications today… rankings are transforming and reshaping higher education.”

From influencing immigration policies to prompting multi-billion pound national policies, she has demonstrated clearly how much rankings are shaping behaviour.

So given their increasing importance, surely the best way forward is for rankers to work closely with the university community and engage openly with their critics, to ensure they offer tables that are meaningful, with all the necessary caveats and health warnings. Who better to do that than Times Higher Education (THE) magazine? THE has been serving the higher education world for forty years – it is our anniversary this year. Through our website, and a new digital edition available from the beginning of this year as an iPhone and iPad application, we are reaching an ever-growing global audience which now amounts to more than 100,000 readers a week. We live or die by our reputation among university staff and policymakers as a trusted source of news, analysis and data week in and week out. Our rankings are part of that. They need to stand up to the close scrutiny of our highly intelligent and demanding readers. That is why in late 2009 we brought in one of the world’s most trusted and respected information specialists, Thomson Reuters, to work with us to develop an entirely new methodology, and to collect and supply all our world rankings data for the future. That is why we published our entirely new rankings system in September 2010 only after ten months of open consultation and frank self-criticism, and after detailed expert advice from more than 50 advisors across 15 countries.

The new Times Higher Education World University Rankings, used 13 indicators to cover the university’s three core missions: research, knowledge transfer and teaching. With the proliferation of different ranking systems by different ranking agencies, all with different agendas, Times Higher Education’s unique selling points are responsibility, transparency and, most importantly given our audience, academic rigour.

For the 2010-11 rankings, we made major improvements to our reputation survey by using the invited views of more than 13,000 targeted, identifiable and experienced academics, questioned on their narrow fields of expertise. We employed a bibliometric indicator that drew on more than 25 million citations from five million journal articles over five years. And we fully normalised the citations data to take account of major variations in citations behaviour between subjects. We made the first serious attempt to capture the teaching and learning environment through five separate indicators – an essential element of any university, but one missed by the other world-ranking systems. They are new rankings, more appropriate for a new era.

The future

One of the things I am most proud of is that we have handed much of the rankings data over to the user. We have created a rankings application for the iPhone and iPad, which I believe represents a major step forward in the field.

Of course, we choose our indicators and weightings very carefully and only after lengthy consultation. But with the app, the weightings can be changed by the user to suit their individual needs. If you don’t agree with our weightings, you can set your own. Such transparency and interactivity with the user is more responsible and I personally believe it is the future of world rankings.

In an article in Times Higher Education last year, Ben Wildavsky, author of the Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, said:

“We now have a global academic marketplace. It seems to me that education markets, like other kinds of market, need information to function effectively. We’re also living in the age of accountability, so rankings aren’t going away.”

I would go a step further. Rankings are certainly not going to go away, and as long as those who rank invest properly in serious research and sound data, as long as they are frank about the limitations of the proxies they employ, as long as they help to educate the users with clear health warnings and keep discussing improvements – rankings are going to become an essential and valued tool in helping to guide us through times of unprecedented change and uncertainty in global higher education.

Phil Baty is Editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Deputy Editor of the Times Higher Education magazine. The latest world university rankings results can be found here:

Times Higher Education is the world’s most authoritative source of information about higher education. Designed specifically for professional people working in higher education and research, Times Higher Education was founded in 1971 and has been online since 1995.

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