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Different surveys for different stakeholders

Three recent global rankings throw up varying results. What should students make of the findings?

education Updated: Sep 22, 2010 09:20 IST
Rahat Bano

The University of Cambridge tops the QS World University Rankings 2010, while it is behind five American institutions in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2010/11, both released in the past fortnight. There are much wider gaps in the result of three global surveys, reference points for many foreign education aspirants.

For instance, University of California, Berkeley, is second in the latest Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings, 8th in THE’s and 28th in QS’s. University College London is fourth in the THE list and 22nd in QS’s. King’s College London is number 77 in THE’s and 21 in QS’s. University of Bristol stands at 27 in QS and 68 in THE. So, what should students make of these rungs-apart findings?

Different means
A given cause is the difference in intended objectives (target users) and the methodology for each study.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) evaluates research institutions. It “uses six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index, and per capita performance with respect to the size of an institution.” Thus it gives a different outcome.

Interestingly, the ARWU was conceived to find out the international standing of China’s top universities.

On the other hand, the QS offering is mainly aimed at students. Ben Sowter, head of the QS Intelligence Unit, explained, “The ongoing QS methodology, which remains broadly unchanged since 2004, and the brand new THE approach are highly divergent. The QS mission is ‘to enable motivated people anywhere in the world to fulfil their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development’. As such when we designed our ranking back in 2003/4, we sought to reflect the interests of a broad group of university stakeholders, students, parents, employers and academics, but with special emphasis on the needs of students and parents. THE’s new rankings seem very oriented towards the interests of university administrators and academics, seeking to compare research income levels and citation impact, amongst other things. The Shanghai Jaiotong ranking, too, is an ‘academic ranking’.”

The THE survey, carried out with QS till 2009 and now based on Thomson Reuters data, is meant to gauge university performance which can be of help to students as well as academics and policymakers. The previous THE surveys, done with QS, had some different parameters. The latest study used 13 criteria in five categories. This time, it has reduced the weight given to the international mix of teachers and students. Also, it has done away with the employer survey in the reputation category. Also, THE boasts that its ranking system is the world’s only one with a section on the teaching and learning environment, including the first-ever global survey of institutions’ teaching reputation.

Phil Baty, editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, said, “The new methodology that has been introduced for the 2010-11 provides an accurate and reliable picture of global higher education.”

THE’s 2010-11 survey is based on data provided by Thomson Reuters from its Global Institutional Profiles Project, “an ongoing, multi-stage process to collect and validate factual data about academic institutional performance across various aspects and multiple disciplines.”

“As a consequence of these differences in rankings objectives and subsequent choice of indicators, the rankings yield substantially different results,” said Sowter of QS.

“This contrast in results ought to encourage prospective students to dig beneath the surface of each ranking and find out what they actually measure. They will then refer to the system that makes the most sense to them. We believe that the employability component, unique to the QS system — introduces a particular relevance for prospective students and their parents and is a measure where all of the institutions you refer to appear in the world’s top 50.”

THE’s Baty added, “Because of the change to the methodology, any movement up or down since 2009 cannot be seen as a change in performance by an individual country or institution. We do contend, however, that these tables are realistic, and so in some cases they may deliver an unpleasant wake-up call that the days of trading on reputation alone are coming to an end.”

India’s status
Only a handful of Indian institutions appear in the three listings: 10-odd in the QS top 500, only two in the ARWU top 500, and none in the THE top 200.
Among the QS top 200, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay is ranked 187 (see box).