Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book Review

This is a draft of a review that may appear shortly in an academic journal.

Guide to the World’s Top Universities, John O’Leary, Nunzio Quacquarelli and Martin Ince. QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.: London. 2006.

The THES (Times Higher Education Supplement)-QS World University Rankings have aroused massive interest throughout the world of higher education, nowhere more so than in East and Southeast Asia. Very few university teachers and administrators in the region can be unaware of the apparent dramatic collapse of quality at Universiti Malaya, which was in fact nothing of the sort. That this resulted from nothing more than an error by THES’s consultants and its belated correction has done little to diminish public fascination.

Now, QS Quacquarelli Symonds, the consultants who compiled the data for the rankings, have published a large 512-page volume. The book, written by John O’Leary and Martin Ince of THES and Nunzio Quacquarelli of QS, comes with impressive endorsements. It is published in association with IELTS, TOEFL and ETS, names that quite a few Asian students and teachers will know, and is distributed by Blackwell Publishing of Oxford. At the top of the front cover, there is a quotation from Tim Rogers, former Head of Student Recruitment and Admissions, London School of Economics: “A must – have book for anyone seeking a quality university education at home and abroad.” Tim Rogers, by the way, has been a consultant for QS.

The Guide to the World’s Top Universities certainly contains a large amount of material. There are thirteen chapters as follows.

Welcome to the world’s first top university guide
Ranking the world’s universities
How to choose a university and course
The benefits of studying abroad
What career? Benefits of a top degree
Tips for applying to university
What parents need to know -- guide to study costs and more
Financing and scholarships
The world’s top 200 universities. This is the ranking that was published last year in the THES.
The world’s top universities by subject. This was also published in the THES.
The top 100 university profiles. This provides two pages of information about each university.
12. The top ten countries
13. Directory of over 500 top world universities.

Basically, there are two parts. The earlier chapters mostly consist of advice that is generally interesting, well written and sensible. Later, we have data about various characteristics of the universities, often ranking them in order. The latter comprise much of the book. The profiles of the top 100 universities take up 200 pages and the directory of 500 plus universities another 140.

So, is this a must-have book? At ₤19.99, $35.95 or Euro 28.50 the answer has to be not really. Maybe it would be a good idea to glance through the earlier advisory chapters but as a source of information and evaluation it is not worth the money. First of all, there are serious problems with the information presented in the rankings, the profiles and the directory. The book’s credibility is undermined by a succession of errors, indicating an unacceptable degree of carelessness. At 35 dollars or 20 pounds we surely have the right to expect something a little better, especially from the producers of what is supposed to be “the gold standard” of university rankings.

Thus we find that the Technical University of Munich appears twice in the profiles in positions 82 (page 283) and 98 (Page313). The latter should be the University of Munich. In the directory the University of Munich is provided with an address in Dortmund (page 407). The Technical University of Helsinki is listed twice in the directory (pages 388 and 389). A number of Swiss universities are located in Sweden (pages 462 and 463). The authors cannot decide whether there is only one Indian Institute of Technology and one Indian Institute of Management (page 416) or several (pages 231 and 253). New Zealand is spelt ‘New Zeland’ (page 441). The profile for Harvard repeats the same information in the factfile under two different headings (page 119). There is something called the ‘Official University of California, Riverside’ on page 483. Kyungpook National University in Korea has a student faculty ratio of zero (page 452). Something that is particularly irritating is that the authors or their assistants still cannot get the names of Malaysian universities right. So we find ‘University Putra Malaysia’ on page 435 and ‘University Sains Malaysia’ on page 436. After that famous blunder about Universiti Malaya’s international students and faculty one would expect the authors to be a bit more careful.

Still, we must give some credit. At least the book has at last started to use the right name for China’s best or second best university – Peking University, not Beijing University -- and ‘University of Kebangsaan Malaysia’ in the 2006 rankings in the THES has now been corrected to ‘Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’.

The Guide really gets confusing, to put it mildly, when it comes to the number of students and faculty. A perceptive observer will note that the data for student-faculty ratio in the top 200 rankings reproduced in chapter 9 is completely different from those in the profiles in chapter 11 and the directory in chapter 13.

For example, in the rankings Duke University, in North Carolina, is given a score of 100, indicating the best student faculty ratio. Going to QS’s topuniversities website we find that Duke supposedly has 11,106 students and 3,192 faculty, representing a ratio of 3.48 students per faculty. But then we turn to the profile and see that Duke is assigned a ratio of 16.7 students per faculty (page 143). On the same page we are told that Duke has 6,301 undergraduates and 4,805 postgraduates and “just under 1,600 faculty”. That makes a ratio of about 6.94. So, Duke has 3.48 or 6.94 or 16.7 students per faculty. Not very helpful.

Looking at Yale University, the book tells us on the same page (127) that the student faculty ratio is 34.3 and that the university has “around 10,000 students” and 3,333 faculty, a ratio of 3 students for each faculty member.

On page 209 we are told that the University of Auckland has a student–faculty ratio of 13.5 and in the adjacent column that it has 2,000 academic staff and 41, 209 students, a ratio of 20.6. Meanwhile, the top 200 rankings give it a faculty student score of 38 which works out at a ratio of 9.2. So, take your pick from 9.2, 13.5 and 20.6.

The data for research expertise is also contradictory. Universities in Australia and China get excellent scores for the “peer review” of best research in the rankings of the top 200 universities in chapter 9 but get relatively poor scores for research impact. The less glamorous American universities like Boston and Pittsburgh get comparatively low scores for peer review of research but actually do excellent research.

Errors and contradictions like these seriously diminish the book’s value as a source of information.

It would not be a good idea to buy this book although it might be worth looking at the early chapters if you can borrow it from a library. To judge the overall global status of a university, the best bet would be to look east and turn to at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Index, available on the Internet, which ranks the top 500 universities. This index focuses entirely on research but there is usually at least a modest relationship between research activity and other variables such as the quality if the undergraduate student intake and teaching performance. Those thinking about going to the US should look at the US News and World Report ‘s America’s Best Colleges. Anyone concerned about costs – who isn’t? -- should look at Kiplinger’s Index, which calculates the value for money of American universities. Incidentally, the fifth place here goes to the State University of New York at Binghamton, which is not even mentioned in the Guide. The Times (which is not the same as the Times Higher Education Supplement) and Guardian rankings are good for British universities.

Students who are not certain about going abroad or who are thinking about going to a less well known local institution could try doing a Google Scholar search for evidence of research proficiency and a Yahoo search for miscellaneous activity. Whatever you do, it is not a good idea to rely on any one source alone and certainly not this one.

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