Whenever a major ranking report is released (like last month’s Financial Times rankings), the world starts to go crazy about rankings: Are rankings valuable? Are they accurate? How can prospective students benefit from rankings? How do you read rankings? And lastly, the topic of a recent Chronicle article, how will global rankings affect global education?
The Chronicle article discusses the European Union’s initiative to create a comprehensive global university ranking system. The project promises a “superior product” that will significantly influence the internationalization of higher education.
The EU’s new rankings have a budget of $1.6 million. It will be run by a German-Dutch-Belgian-French consortium whose mission is to develop a ranking system “that goes beyond the research performance of universities, to include elements such as teaching quality and community outreach.”
The consortium will develop university profiles based on the following six categories: teaching and learning, student body, international orientation, research, disseminating research, and regional engagement.
Why are universities so inclined to “measure up” on an international scale? A few factors have led to this increased pressure:
- Worldwide enrollment jumped more than 50% last decade.
- An increase in university expansion to and partnership with foreign universities.
As universities and prospective students become more and more hyped about global rankings, those rankings will hold more and more weight, and attract increasing criticism.
“[The rankers] all understand they’re very vulnerable to criticism,” says Thomas D. Parker of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “All of them are aware that they started out with pretty simple tools, and that if they’re going to satisfy anybody, they need to get a bit smarter.”
Most of the skepticism on the forthcoming EU rankings rests on the rankings’ perceived vagueness. For example, Frans van Vugt, one of the leaders of the new project, describes the “resulting classification of each institution to a sunburst, with each category contributing a ray.” I guess we’ll have to see it to know what he’s talking about.
Potential areas of weakness in the EU’s rankings include:
- Peer review, one of the EU ranking’s criteria, is subject to abuse and is highly criticized. Will peer attitudes be biased or will they accurately reflect what test scores and more measurable criteria can’t assess?
- Research, a key criterion in other major rankings, may move decidedly off the radar. The EU rankings will steer focus away from “research intensity and toward a handful of other indicators.”
In all fairness, the EU rankings are still in the early stages of development. A test run is scheduled for 2011. We’ll reserve judgment until then.
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