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Are global university rankings losing their credibility?

It's the season of the global university rankings, and so long-time rankings watcher Richard Holmes compares the major results and methodologies used - and finds much change in the data, but little change in how the rankings are treated by the media and higher education establishment.
This article is more than 8 years old

Richard is an academic and expert on university rankings. He writes in depth on rankings at his blog: University Rankings Watch.

The international university ranking scene has become increasingly complex, confusing and controversial. It also seems that the big name brands are having problems balancing popularity with reliability and validity. All this is apparent from the events of the last two months which has seen the publication of several major rankings.

The first phase of the 2015 global ranking season ended with the publication of the US News’s (USN) Best Global universities. We have already seen the 2015 editions of the big three brand names, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) produced by the Centre for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education (THEWorld University Rankings. Now a series of spin-offs has begun.

In addition, a Russian organisation, Round University Ranking (RUR), has produced another set of league tables. Apart from a news item on the website of the International Ranking Expert Group these rankings have received almost no attention outside Russia, Eastern Europe and the CIS. This is very unfortunate since they do almost everything that the other rankings do and contain information that the others do not.

One sign of the growing complexity of the ranking scene is that USN, QS, ARWU and THE are producing a variety of by-products including rankings of new universities, subject rankings, best cities for students, reputation rankings, regional rankings with no doubt more to come. They are also assessing more universities than ever before. THE used to take pride in ranking only a small elite group of world universities. Now they are talking about being open and inclusive and have ranked 800 universities this year, as did QS, while USN has expanded from 500 to 750 universities. Only the Shanghai rankers have remained content with a mere 500 universities in their general rankings.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

All three of the brand name rankings have faced issues of credibility. The Shanghai ARWU has had a problem with the massive recruitment of adjunct faculty by King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah. This was initially aimed at the highly cited researchers indicator in the ARWU, which simply counts the number of researchers affiliated to universities no matter whether their affiliation has been for an academic lifetime or had begun the day before ARWU did the counting. The Shanghai rankers deftly dealt with this issue by simply not counting secondary affiliations in the new lists of highly cited researchers supplied by Thompson Reuters in 2014.

That, however, did not resolve the problem entirely. Those researchers have not stopped putting KAU as a secondary affiliation and even if they no longer affected the highly cited researchers indicator they could still help a lot with publications and papers in Nature and Science, both of which are counted in the ARWU. These part-timers – and some may not even be that – have already ensured that KAU, according to ARWU, is the top university in the world for publications in mathematics.

The issue of secondary affiliation is one that is likely to become a serious headache for rankers, academic publishers and databases in the next few years. Already, undergraduate teaching in American universities is dominated by a huge reserve army of adjuncts. It is not impossible that in the near future some universities may find it very easy to offer minimal part-time contracts to talented researchers in return for listing as an affiliation and then see a dramatic improvement in ranking performance.

ARWU’s problem with the highly cited researchers coincided with Thomson Reuters producing a new list and announcing that the old one would no longer be updated. Last year, Shanghai combined the old and new lists and this produced substantial changes for some universities. This year they continued with the two lists and there was relatively little movement in this indicator or in the overall rankings. But next year they will drop the old list altogether and just use the new one and there will be further volatility. ARWU have, however, listed the number of highly cited researchers in the old and new lists so most universities should be aware of what is coming.

Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings

The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings have been regarded with disdain by many British and American academics although they do garner some respect in Asia and Latin America. Much of the criticism has been directed at the academic reputation survey which is complex, opaque and, judging from QS’s regular anti-gaming measures, susceptible to influence from universities. There have also been complaints about the staff student ratio indicator being a poor proxy for teaching quality and the bias of the citations per faculty indicator towards medicine and against engineering, the social sciences and the arts and humanities.

QS have decided to reform their citations indicator by treating the five large subject groups as contributing equally to the indicator score. In addition, QS omitted papers, most of them in physics, with a very large number of listed authors and averaged responses to the surveys over a period of five years in an attempt to make the rankings less volatile.

The result of all this was that some universities rose and others fell. Imperial College London went from 2nd to 8th while the London School of Economics rose from 71st to 35th. In Italy, the Polytechnics of Milan and Turin got a big boost while venerable universities suffered dramatic relegation. Two Indian institutions moved into the two hundred, some Irish universities such as Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork went down and some such as National University of Ireland Galway and the University of Limerick went up.

There has always been a considerable amount of noise in these rankings resulting in part from small fluctuations in the employer and academic surveys. In the latest rankings these combined with methodological changes to produce some interesting fluctuations. Overall the general pattern was that universities that emphasise the social sciences, the humanities and engineering have improved at the expense of those that are strong in physics and medicine.

Perhaps the most remarkable of this year’s changes was the rise of two Singaporean universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), to 12th and 13th place respectively, a change that has met with some scepticism even in Singapore. They are now above Yale, EPF Lausanne and King’s College London. While the changes to the citations component were significant, another important reason for the rise of these two universities was their continuing remarkable performance in the academic and employer surveys. NUS is in the top ten in the world for academic reputation and employer reputation with a perfect score of 100, presumably rounded up, in each. NTU is 52nd for the academic survey and 39th for employer with scores in the nineties for both.

Introducing a moderate degree of field normalisation was probably a smart move. QS were able to reduce the distortion resulting from the database’s bias to medical research without risking the multiplication of strange results that have plagued the THE citations indicator. They have not, however, attempted to reform the reputation surveys which continue to have a combined 50% weighting and until they do so these rankings are unlikely to achieve full recognition from the international academic community.

Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings

The latest THE world rankings were published on September 30th and like QS, THE have done some tweaking of their methodology. They had broken with Thompson Reuters at the end of 2014 and started using data from Scopus, while doing the analysis and processing in-house. They were able to analyse many more papers and citations and conduct a more representative survey of research and postgraduate supervision. In addition they omitted multi-author and multi-cited papers and reduced the impact of the “regional modification”.

Consequently there was a large dose of volatility. The results were so different from those of 2014 that they seemed to reflect an entirely new system. THE did, to their credit, do the decent thing and state that direct comparisons should not be made to previous years. That, however, did not stop scores of universities and countries around the world from announcing their success. Those that had suffered have for the most part kept quiet.

There were some remarkable changes. At the very top, Oxford and Cambridge surged ahead of Harvard which fell to sixth place. University College Dublin, in contrast to the QS rankings, rose as did Twente and Moscow State, the Karolinska Institute and ETH Zurich.

On the other hand, many universities in France, Korea, Japan and Turkey suffered dramatic falls. Some of those universities had been participants in the CERN projects and so had benefitted in 2014 from the huge number of citations derived from their papers. Some were small and produced few papers so those citations were divided by a small number of papers. Some were located in countries that performed poorly and so got help from a “regional modification” (the citation impact score of the university is divided by the square root of the average citation impact score of the whole country). Such places suffered badly from this year’s changes.

It is a relief that THE have finally done something about the citations indicator and it would be excellent if they continued with further reforms such as fractional counting, reducing the indicator’s overall weighting, not counting self-citations and secondary affiliations and getting rid of the regional modification altogether.

Unfortunately, if the current round of reforms represent an improvement, and on balance they probably do, then the very different results of 2014 and before, call into question THE’s repeated claims to be trusted, robust and sophisticated. If the University of Twente deserves to be in the top 150 this year then the 2014 rankings which had them outside the top 200 could not possibly be valid. If the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) fell 66 places then either the 2015 rankings or those of 2014 were inaccurate, or they both were. Unless there is some sort of major restructuring such as an amalgamation of specialist schools or the shedding of inconvenient junior colleges or branch campuses, large organisations like universities simply do not and cannot change that much over the course of 12 months or less.

It would have been more honest, although probably not commercially feasible, for THE to declare that they were starting with a completely new set of rankings and to renounce the 2009-14 rankings in the way that they had disowned the rankings produced in cooperation with QS between 2004 and 2008. THE seem to be trying to trade on the basis of their trusted methodology while selling results suggesting that that methodology is far from trustworthy. They are of course doing just what a business has to do. But that is no reason why university administrators and academic experts should be so tolerant of such a dubious product.

These rankings also contain quite a few small or specialised institutions that would appear to be on the borderline of a reasonable definition of an “independent university with a broad range of subjects”: Scuala Normale Superiore di Pisa and Scuala Superiore Sant’Anna, both part of the University of Pisa system, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, an affiliate of two universities, St George’s, University of London, a medical school, Copenhagen Business School, Rush university, the academic branch of a private hospital in Chicago, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) in Moscow, specialising in physics. Even if THE have not been too loose about who is included, the high scores achieved by such narrowly focussed institutions calls the validity of the rankings into question.

Round University Rankings

In general the THE rankings have received a broad and respectful response from the international media and university managers, and criticism has largely been confined to outsiders and specialists. This is in marked contrast to the Round University Rankings released by a Russian organisation early in September. These are based entirely on data supplied by Thompson Reuters, THE’s data provider and analyst until last year. They contain a total of 20 indicators, including 12 out of the 13 in the THE rankings. Unlike THE, RUR do not bundle indicators together in groups so it is possible to tell exactly why universities are performing well or badly.

The RUR rankings are not elegantly presented but the content is more transparent than THE, more comprehensive than QS, and apparently less volatile than either. It is a strong indictment of the international higher education establishment that these rankings are ignored while THE’s are followed so avidly.

Best Global Universities

The second edition of the US News’s Best Global Universities was published at the beginning of October. The US News is best known for the ranking of American colleges and universities and it has been cautious about venturing into the global arena. These rankings are fairly similar to the Shanghai ARWU, containing only research indicators and making no pretence to measure teaching or graduate quality. The methodology avoids some elementary mistakes. It does not give too much weight to any one indicator, with none getting more than 12.5%, and measures citations in three different ways. For eight indicators log manipulation was done before the calculation of z-scores to eliminate outliers and statistical anomalies.

This year US News went a little way towards reducing the rankers’ obsession with citations by including conferences and books in the list of criteria.

Since they do not include any non-research indicators these rankings are essentially competing with the Shanghai ARWU and it is possible that they may eventually become the first choice for internationally mobile graduate students.

But at the moment it seems that the traditional media and higher education establishment have lost none of their fascination for the snakes and ladders game of THE and QS.

4 responses to “Are global university rankings losing their credibility?

  1. It sounds the author of this article is promoting the so called “Round University Rankings”. Click the webpage of this ranking and it is clear the list table is even worse than the QS rankings that earned no respect in academic world.

  2. Some top universities that appearing in the 2017 were completely invisible in the 2016 list. Why their change are so great within one year?

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