University rankings: not that simple

Dear Editor,

I was fascinated to read Janna Degener’s interesting piece on university rankings.

Rankings are an endlessly interesting subject. It is important to understand why they exist. At a superficial level, they are designed to sell copies of magazines that publish them, or advertising in these publications, or are a commercial undertaking in some other way. More fundamentally, they owe their existence to competition and market forces. World rankings illustrate this point. At the turn of the 21st century, there were about two million students studying outside their home country. Now there are nearly five million. This means that there is a large community of people who know that they want to study internationally, but who lack information on how to go about it.

However, even this is not the whole story. We see from the growth of national university rankings in the late 20th century that they take off when there is competition between universities for the top students. This is why national rankings are less important in continental Europe, where higher education is free or cheap, than in the UK or the US, where it is expensive and where student fees are important to university cash flow.

It is obviously correct to say that a single set of figures comparing two universities does not mean a lot. Rankings need to be read with care. And because it is easy to measure research on a world scale, but impossible to measure teaching in the same way, rankings can fail to capture the things that matter most to students. However, rankings get better and more useful all the time. My own organisation, QS, now ranks universities in Latin America, Asia and the BRICS nations as well as globally. More importantly, we now publish a world ranking of university performance in 30 subjects, from history to chemical engineering, This innovation vastly grows the value of rankings for potential students.

And while rankings have grown vastly in their use to students, it is worth noting that their unintended consequences have been even greater that the intentional ones. They are used to by governments, many of which set a target for the number of ranked universities they hope to have; by university managers wanting to drive strategy; and by employers looking for top recruits.

These and other uses of rankings will continue to multiply, as will rankings themselves, and we look forward to future debate on the matter. The growing demographic crisis in many countries, with young people becoming rarer and more sought-after by employers and educators alike, means that there is a growing incentive for them to take well-informed decisions about their future. Rankings are one device they can use to help do so.

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Anastas Tarpanov,(Sofia University Library)

Martin Ince

Chair of the Academic Advisory Board at QS World University Rankings
Science and education writer, Martin Ince was REF impact consultant to Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.
Martin Ince

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