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The ritual dance of university rankings

By johnboy - 4 October 2013 13

By Gwilym Croucher, University of Melbourne

Whenever an unfavourable political opinion poll comes out, you can count on one thing: at least one politician saying they never pay attention to polls. And so it goes for university leaders when the results are in from world university rankings.

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2013-14 released today were not universally good news for Australian universities. While some improved their rank, the overall result was less encouraging.

The University of Melbourne lost six places, going from 28 to 34; while the ANU went from 37 to 48 and the University of Adelaide dropped out of the top 200 altogether.

After a strong 2012-13, Australia has fallen back to earth with a bump.

And now for many universities, the ritual dance around a rankings release will proceed with vigour. Universities will variously welcome or dismiss the result, depending on the good or bad news.

But do university rankings really mean much for the institutions involved – beyond something to add to glossy advertisements? And do ever new rankings and university measures just mean more music for universities to dance to?


You can read more on the latest results from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings here.


Many different ways to be ranked

There are clearly many ways to measure what universities do – from research spending to student accommodation, as this UK University League Table from 30 years ago shows.

league tables

Increasingly, there are more specific measures that try to capture some novel aspect of university offerings and the list of large-scale rankings published around the world seems to be getting longer.

The THE’s Alma Mater Index: Global Executives 2013, for example, measures degrees awarded to CEOs, alongside the number of CEO alumni and the revenue of their companies. This begs the question of whether such a measure tells us more about perceived prestige than anything else.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those US universities that rank well in other lists are also heavily represented on the Alma Mater Index. But so are other institutions that do not rank as highly, though they are often ones that are prestigious in a particular nation.

A new European experiment in university rankings is U-Multirank, which measures and ranks different dimensions of universities, such as teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement. It shows differences between institutional focus and allows similarly profiled universities to be better compared.

Here in Australia, a project by the LH Martin Institute and the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) looks at the diversity of Australia’s institutions today, using evidence-based profiles and the method employed by U-Multirank.

Also in Australia, there is the My University website and the Good Universities Guide. With the variety of rankings and measures on offer, it appears that there is abundant data to compare universities.

The international student market

Rankings, such as the THE world rankings, attract increasing press coverage. There are legitimate fears that a change in ranking affects international student preferences, for both individual institutions and the Australian higher education sector.

Predicting the exact impact that rankings have on the international student market is fraught. There are several factors that appear to affect the attractiveness of Australian higher education – such as the exchange rate, changing visa arrangements and the international press reporting of Australia as a study destination.

Fees from international students effectively cross-subsidise much research and, at times, domestic teaching in most universities. Estimates find that on average each international student contributes around A$5100 per year.

Universities can ill-afford to lose this critical revenue.

By recent count, Australia has about 7% of the international student market, a very good proportion compared to our share of world population. But higher education is becoming more competitive globally and technology threatens existing campus-based teaching.

Countries with a strong history of higher education, such as the UK, are seeking a larger share of the world market. Technology, of which MOOCs – or Massive Open Online Courses – are flavour of the month, could dramatically change the attractiveness of campus based teaching.

So if a change in rankings will make Australia less attractive to international students, those in universities might legitimately fear some unwelcome consequences.

But we should be wary of arguing too strongly that a change in rankings alone will dramatically affect international (or domestic) student preferences. Many factors influence why students choose a particular university or country over another.

And universities should probably be extra careful to avoid any “magical thinking”: how universities do in various rankings (good or bad) may not affect the world they exist in at all.

Gwilym Croucher works for the University of Melbourne as a higher education policy analyst in the office of the Vice-Chancellor.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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13 Responses to
The ritual dance of university rankings
Masquara 3:18 pm 06 Oct 13

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Er, more like only makes the top 8 per cent – that’s a VERY shabby result for a university in one of the richest countries in the world. Charles Darwin, Flinders and Deakin are in the top 3 per cent. New Zealand’s University of Waikato is in the top 3 per cent. And South Africa’s three universities are all in the top 3 per cent.

Very shabby.

True, it’s closer to 8%. “Very shabby” is a bit harsh though. Since these rankings are based on research I feel UC is probably disadvantaged by its emphasis on teaching quality, undergrads and practical degrees. In any event the university is improving. Rather than gratuitous criticism, why not celebrate its progress?

No I don’t study or work there.

I speak from a position of some insider knowledge. The rankings are perfectly valid. Many UC masters students wouldn’t cut it as ANU first year undergraddies – on identical topics. UC has teachers on staff whom I have seen give HD marks to overseas students whose work didn’t warrant a credit – and WOULDN’T be given a high mark at ANU. I’ve seen overseas students at UC who had no written English skills whatsoever awarded high marks – on essays they must have purchased. Their particular teachers were very keen to avoid examination situations for their students, and by and large the bean counters let them get away with it.

Codders111 1:06 pm 06 Oct 13

switch said :

Masquara said :

And South Africa’s three universities are all in the top 3 per cent.

Does South Africa, with about twice Australia’s population, really get by with only three unis? Why do we have scores of them, then?

Probably because South Africa is a basketcase where very few have the requisite education and social privilege to attend university.

Check out http://www.economist.com/node/15270976 if you’re interested.

Codders111 12:53 pm 06 Oct 13

Masquara said :

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Er, more like only makes the top 8 per cent – that’s a VERY shabby result for a university in one of the richest countries in the world. Charles Darwin, Flinders and Deakin are in the top 3 per cent. New Zealand’s University of Waikato is in the top 3 per cent. And South Africa’s three universities are all in the top 3 per cent.

Very shabby.

True, it’s closer to 8%. “Very shabby” is a bit harsh though. Since these rankings are based on research I feel UC is probably disadvantaged by its emphasis on teaching quality, undergrads and practical degrees. In any event the university is improving. Rather than gratuitous criticism, why not celebrate its progress?

No I don’t study or work there.

tuco 8:12 am 06 Oct 13

poetix said :

*Surely.

In before Barcham.

I am serious. And stop calling me surly.

switch 10:34 pm 05 Oct 13

Masquara said :

And South Africa’s three universities are all in the top 3 per cent.

Does South Africa, with about twice Australia’s population, really get by with only three unis? Why do we have scores of them, then?

Masquara 4:37 pm 05 Oct 13

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Codders111 said :

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Er, more like only makes the top 8 per cent – that’s a VERY shabby result for a university in one of the richest countries in the world. Charles Darwin, Flinders and Deakin are in the top 3 per cent. New Zealand’s University of Waikato is in the top 3 per cent. And South Africa’s three universities are all in the top 3 per cent.

Very shabby.

Codders111 12:56 pm 05 Oct 13

Masquara said :

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

That’s not too shabby – it’s probably in the top 5% of universities worldwide. Well done UC.

Masquara 12:33 pm 05 Oct 13

poetix said :

Surle the author stole that name from Charles Dickens? Gwilym Croucher is an excellent moniker.

And, Poetix, you of course borrowed your fabulous name from Goscinny and Uderzo! : )

poetix 10:55 am 05 Oct 13

*Surely.

In before Barcham.

poetix 10:08 am 05 Oct 13

Surle the author stole that name from Charles Dickens? Gwilym Croucher is an excellent moniker.

milkman 9:44 pm 04 Oct 13

I’ve never put much stock in university wankery, despite having a couple of fairly difficult to obtain degrees. Personally I find academia tiresome and petty.

The level of success of an individual has more to do with brains, personality and (most importantly) perseverance than it does with the name at the top of the cream coloured piece of paper.

Masquara 7:14 pm 04 Oct 13

Robertson said :

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

Somewhere between 600 and 650. Bwa ha ha

Robertson 3:09 pm 04 Oct 13

How did the CCAE rank, I wonder?

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