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Do university rankings truly measure up?

29 Jul 2011

The article can be read at this

It is May 27, 2011 and two media
reports about Thai higher education tell very opposite stories. On one
hand, a feel-good news item published in The Nation newspaper trumpets
that 5 Thai universities were ranked among the top 100 in the QS Asian
University Rankings 2011. Turn the pages of the Bangkok Post, however,
and the editorial “Get real about bad education” laments the sorry
state of quality at the country’s colleges and universities.
Wishing for a brighter future: Every November, students celebrate the
Loy Krathong cultural festival at the pond in Chulalongkorn University.
Thailand’s ‘‘modern knowledge management enterprises’’—universities—are
in need of extroverted and visionary leadership.

So who is to be believed?

This tale of two headlines offers useful
instruction about the pitfalls of our new obsession with university
rankings. Though they capture considerable press attention,
international university rankings are not measuring all that is great
about universities and their true worth to society.

Moreover, in the race to have their top
national institutes climb the ladders of the world’s competitive league
tables, many countries are in fact racing to the bottom by not
providing quality, relevant education systems for their citizens.

Although some assessments of
universities’ outputs occurred as far back as the mid-19th century, it
really wasn’t until the 1980s that public analyses of educational
institutions became popularised in the mainstream media.

Fast forward to today, and we see that
higher education is now a borderless global public good. With the
worldwide marketplace for higher education projected to reach some 250
million students in 2025, rankings advocates say cross-national
comparisons of the strength of institutions are a necessary way to
impose international benchmarks.

Nowadays university rankings are the rage
all around the world, and over 50 countries have national rankings.
Americans read the US News and World Report, Australia has it’s The
Good Universities Guide and Canada is home to the well-read Maclean’s
University Ranking. There are also a number of global rankings with an
alphabet soup of names, acronyms and brands such as Times Higher
Education, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World
Universities. It’s all very big business, as there are over 15,000
higher education institutions around the world that can potentially be

The question then becomes: What is being
measured, and why?

Amid the plethora of methodologies and
criteria used to compare, say, university A with university B,
quantitative data sets generally pinpoint strengths in teaching,
research and international reputation of faculty and students.
Assessing these traditional criteria one result almost always emerges _
either Harvard University or Britain’s famed “Oxbridge” are crowned the
world’s best, along with a smattering of the other American Ivy League
and California-based rivals.

Not surprisingly, all are also tops in
terms of financial endowments reaching many billions of dollars.
Harvard’s endowment in 2009 was about US$26 billion, about the size of
the GDP of Panama and larger than the economies of 98 countries.

For these globally-focused comprehensive
universities possessing similar resources and orientation, uniform
rankings are probably useful.

Indeed, arguing the relative merits of
the scholarship happening at Cambridge, Massachusetts versus Cambridge,
England is a fair debate, and even a fun pursuit. However, very few
universities in developing countries can ever afford to compete with
the finances available to these super-elite universities, to avail of
the world’s who’s-who of intellectual talent, and to pick and choose
from what is considered as cutting-edge research.

But even if they could, should they even
try? Probably not, said experts at a recent forum organised by the
United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation, the
Institutional Management of Higher Education and the World Bank. Rather
than trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and conforming to the
prevailing mono-culture approach to higher education by funnelling
scarce public funds to create flagship universities, governments would
be advised to ignore the rankings altogether.

Better to focus on the entire education
system from kindergarten to post-graduate levels, to produce
sufficiently skilled citizens who can benefit from inclusive
socio-economic growth.

It’s sometimes said that it is “what is
counted” that counts. If true, it’s time to employ arithmetic that
adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides new indicators for those
universities too often left out of traditional rankings.

Here the emphasis would be on relevance,
value and impact of scholarship. For example, categories could be
created, weighted and tilted in favour of the overall added-value a
particular school contributes to society and to improving people’s
well-being through progressive education, skills development,
appropriate vocational training, respect for principles of corporate
social responsibility and community investment.

Indeed, one wonders just how many
university rankings would be reversed if they were litmus-tested along
the principle of “Do as I teach, not as I do”?

Development of the whole individual also
requires appraisal of character, values and personality, important
things which are not measured _ but should be. In an age when social
inequality is on the rise, surely it’s a reasonable idea to tally a
university’s ability to educate socially-conscious graduates. At a
moment in history when energy, water and food are defining issues in a
world frightened by the prospects of resource scarcity, population
growth and climate change, shouldn’t scholarly research and real life
societal outreach done by universities in the developing world be worth
just as much to a school’s reputation, as the number of Nobel laureates
on the faculty of a university in the West?

How about putting schools’ sustainable
development, poverty reduction and green curricula up for competitive
review and critique?

Beyond simply measuring the number of
international students at a school, wouldn’t counting the number of
students from least developed countries indicate a school’s true
commitment to internationality and global development?

A poor indicator currently used is the
number of foreign nationalities “represented” at a university, which
does not review the real weight and quality of its inter-cultural
responsiveness. It is time to evaluate “expatriatism” as a more precise
appraisal of extroverted attitudes, just as it is done in many other
business sectors. Expatriatism could be rated by monitoring the extent
of third-culture populations at universities, foreign-national ratios,
North-South composition for students and professors, as well as
multilateralism of shareholders and the international geographical
location of campuses.

Extroverted and visionary leadership of
“modern knowledge management enterprises” (read: universities) could be
measured by assessing the ratio of teaching, research and outreach
directly linked to the attainment of the UN Millennium Development
Goals and to the advancement of human rights agendas _ all factors
which are essential drivers of the world’s capacity to respond to
global risks and fulfil humankind’s hopes for justice and freedom.

Any top-down, one-size-fits-all approach
to universities that eschews diversity is an uninspiring model for
humanity. A new paradigm or “social engagement scorecard” for ranking
universities across the world would instead break free of homogenised
evaluation regimens and make the rankings more productive for countries
struggling to improve the quality of their entire education

Such an approach would value the
complexity that exists in academia. It would recognise the inherent
worth of institutions’ mission statements within national, regional and
global development scenarios and cultural contexts.

Ultimately, viewing the rich
contributions of universities through a new set of lenses could
catapult many erstwhile also-rans into the rarified air of “the world’s

And any university that wishes to be
ranked amongst the world’s best should also be happy to compete “to
make the world better”.