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What Do World University Rankings Mean?

By Tiffani Razavi, Tie Staff Writer
What Do World University Rankings Mean?

Year after year, as waves of students prepare to graduate from high school, teenagers and parents ponder the next step and face the question of where to attend university. For the international community, the field of options is global, and for many, league tables of world university rankings are a starting point. With rising fees and uncertain graduate job prospects but also greater international flexibility, gaining some sense of the profile of higher education opportunities is essential.
The attraction of a simple list is powerful, but in order for prospective students and those guiding them to derive something useful from the rankings it is necessary to take a closer look at the way in which the lists are constructed. There is enough variety in the methodologies used by the top agencies involved in the scoring business that the final ordering of institutions proposed by each can differ markedly.
Most rankings are based on a combination of indicators, covering research, teaching, and income. These indicators are in turn weighted and normalized to produce a final overall score. While the on-paper differences between scores—particularly among top-tier institutions—are often negligible, statistical insignificance may not be evident in the final table of rankings. Perhaps more importantly, the numbers alone may mask real world differences that could be crucial for an individual student.
The most commonly cited rankings lists are QS, Times Higher Education (THE), and Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). The QS approach relies heavily on academic reputation, assigning it a weight that corresponds to 40 percent of a university’s overall score. Reputation is measured by a survey of academics internationally (in 2016–17 nearly 75,000 participated) to identify the universities where they consider the best work is taking place in their fields, with the intention of providing a guide to academic opinion about the quality of an institution.
To this factor, QS adds student-to-faculty ratio (20 percent), in an effort to assess teaching quality by identifying universities best able to provide small class sizes and individual supervision; citations per faculty member as an indicator of research impact (20 percent); employer reputation (10 percent), based on survey data from employers asked to identify the institutions they believe produce the best graduates; international faculty ratio (5 percent); and international student ratio (5 percent). QS highlights the employer data as its unique contribution to university rankings.
The THE world university rankings claim to be the only tables “that judge research-intensive universities across all their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook.” The methodology involves 13 performance indicators, which THE believes “provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons, trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry, and governments.”
These indicators fall into five weighted categories: teaching (the learning environment), 30 percent; research (volume, income, and reputation), 30 percent; citations (research influence), 30 percent; international outlook (staff, students, and research, based on ratios), 7.5 percent; industry income (knowledge transfer, based on income), 2.5 percent. Scores in the first two categories are built up from a combination of survey and objective data, relying most on the Academic Reputation Survey (about 10,000 responses annually), which examines the perceived prestige of universities in teaching and research excellence among academic peers. Survey data are augmented by information about ratios (such as staff-to-student, doctorate-to-bachelor), research income, and the number of papers published.
ARWU methodology focuses on universities that boast Nobel laureates, Fields medalists, Highly Cited Researchers, and papers published in Nature or Science, as well as those with significant numbers of papers indexed. In total, more than 1,200 universities are actually ranked and the best 500 are published on the web. The quality of education provided by an institution is determined by the number of alumni with Nobel prizes and Fields Medals and accounts for 10 percent of the score, while the quality of the faculty as measured by the number of staff winning these prestigious awards and the number of Highly Cited Researchers constitutes 40 percent of the score, research output another 40 percent, and per capita academic performance 10 percent. In contrast to the other two methodologies, there is no teaching quality or learning environment component.
As Francisco Marmolejo of the Global Solutions Group on Tertiary Education at the World Bank points out, ranking methodologies tend to favor more traditional, research-oriented, and selective universities while downgrading those that emphasize the quality of teaching, which ultimately shapes the experience of the student. Rather than looking at overall rankings, then, checking the details of the scores and following up with other sources of information is critical.
While rankings do provide an indication of how institutions are perceived globally, Marmolejo notes that the emphasis on research diverts attention from other important functions, such as teaching and public service. “Quite expectedly, people tend to favor certain institutions, regardless of the quality of their academic programs,” he writes, “just because of the fame or recognition that precedes them. As such, other institutions and programs that may not have a famous name but are providing meaningful contributions to their societies by producing the graduates required for their local and regional economy fall by the wayside.”
Referring to rankings as part of the university selection process is a sensitive business. Our effective use of the information they provide depends on how clear we are about what questions they can actually answer, and how mindful we are of what they do not tell us.

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