Friday, March 26, 2010

News about ranking

There has been a lot of ranking-related activity over the last few days.

  • Phil Baty of Times Higher Education and the QS team of John O'Leary, Martin Ince, Nunzio Quacquarelli and Ben Sowter have given presentations at the British Council Going Global 4 conference in London. Phil Baty was apologetic over the flaws of the old THE-QS rankings while the QS team saw no reason change.

  • The Economist has an article "Leagues Apart" that briefly reviews the development of international university rankings. Observations include the volatility of the rankings. Perhaps inevitably the example chosen is the fall of LSE after QS introduced standardised scores which helped universities that produced more citations.

  • Phil Baty in THE comments on the problems of assessing the quality of teaching in unversities.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

FAQs at QS

QS have answered some questions over at
QS TOPUNIVERSITIES. Here are some of the questions and ATFAQS (Answers to ...) or extracts and some comments.

"1) How do you plan to address the perceived bias towards English-speaking (and particularly UK) universities?

...The reality is, however, that in many areas of university competitiveness, operating in English is an advantage. English language journals are more widely read and cited, the top four destinations for international students (and I suspect also faculty) are the US, Canada, UK and Australia – all English speaking. Many universities in non-English speaking Asia, recognising this are operating more programs in English and all global rankings currently carry this bias, not just ours. Our objective is to minimise the bias, but it is far from clear whether eliminating it entirely would be appropriate."

Fair enough. But the bias within the English speaking world (the high scores for Oxbridge, the London schools and colleges, Edinburgh and Australian universities compared to the US and Canada) in the THE-QS rankings was probably more significant.

"3) Following the launch of the government-funded Assessment of Higher Education Learning Objectives (AHELO) pilot scheme, how do you respond to the suggestion that an insufficient emphasis is given to teaching standards and student skills within the more research-oriented established methodologies?

QS absolutely concurs that teaching and learning is inadequately embraced in any of the existing global rankings, including our own and is watching the AHELO exercise with great interest to see if lessons can be drawn and applied to the much broader geographical scope of our rankings. QS is also assessing whether student and alumni inputs can help draw a clearer picture of comparative performance in teaching and learning. On the student skills side of things, QS is currently the only global ranking taking this aspect seriously – via the Employer Review indicator."

Assessing the quality of teaching has so many pitfalls that it may never be possible to do it objectively on an international scale. A global version of RateMyProfessor might be feasible but there is obvious potential for rigging. It also has to be said that for more proficient students -- and that would include many or most of those in universities that will be in the top 200 0r 300 in any sort of ranking -- teaching is largely irrelevant. I doubt if any high fliers from the Ivy League or the grandes ecoles were ever quizzed by interviewers about the staff-student ratio in their classes or whether their instructors explained desired learning outcomes or whether they felt safe in their lecture halls. If teaching is to be assessed an opinion survey is probably no worse than anything else that might be proposed.

"4) Do you think that the low ranking of LSE in the 2009 rankings (67th) is reflective of an inherent bias toward scientific subjects within citations-based methodologies, and if so how do you plan to address this in 2010?

The QS World University Rankings™ are designed to assess the all-round quality of universities across all disciplines and levels, in teaching, research, employability and internationalisation. LSE is a fantastic institution, as is reflected by their persistent high position in the Social Sciences – the faculty area in which they are focused. In fact, it is so strong with its narrower focus that it manages to compete with world leading institutions with a much broader range. Even if we only take the proportion of world universities recognised by UNESCO a Top 100 placing represents the top 1% - a prolific achievement for an institution that focuses on only a small part of the academic spectrum. To put things in perspective, LSE fails to break the top 200 in the Shanghai Ranking."

It seems that the position of LSE in the forthcoming rankings will be closely watched. Yes, there has been a bias against institutions with strengths in the social sciences and this may be corrected in the THE rankings but anything that benefits LSE will also benefit general universities as much or more.

"5) How can the shift in position of some universities in the THE -QS World University Rankings 2004-2009 be explained?"

QS essentially answers this questions, or rather avoids answering it, by pointing out that later editions of the THE-QS rankings showed more stability and that national rankings of British universities were even more volatile.

One reason why the THE-QS rankings were so unstable is simply the large number of errors that were made. These include counting ethnic minorities in Malaysia as international faculty and students, giving 1 out of 100 for citations to Washington University in St. Louis, the Indian Institutes of technology and Technion Israel and then boosting their scores in the following year, overcounting the number of faculty at Duke University and overcounting the number of citations or undercounting the number of faculty at the University of Alabama.

Such errors do, however, appear to have been eliminated from the most recent rankings.

Another problem arose from the the frequent changes in methods and sources of data. Here there is a real and serious dilemma . Methodological improvements are necessary to maintain validity but at the same time they can undermine credibility by causing noticeable fluctuations.

One solution to this might simply be to publish two sets of rankings every year, one with an unchanged methodology called the QS Classic or the Shanghai Classic ranking and another incorporating the latest methodological changes called the New, Alpha.. Mega.. or whatever ranking.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Job Advertisement

QS are recruiting a Research Assistant for their London office, presumably to work on the data collection for the 2010 rankings.

"You will have analytical insight and familiarity with working with large data sets as well as you will be an effective communicator both personally and in writing. You will be results-oriented and dedicated to contributing to the success and development of our business unit and its research outputs. Responsibilities include Data collection gathering correct information from universities directly via email website telephone or third party sources Data entry accurate data entry into existing online database Correspondence dealing with university representatives or third party clients handling enquiries promoting the products Research research the web or other applicable sources for useful information Research Outputs contributing to high quality and insightful research outputs Gathering the correct information from universities can be a challenging task and often requires a surprising level of skill tenacity and diplomacy as well as a healthy appetite for problem solving. Therefore Skills attributes required Ability to stay focused and high attention to detail -Tenacity diplomacy and reliability Healthy appetite for problem solving Inquisitive mind and genuine interest Good communication Effective time management Commitment and Enthusiasm Excellent knowledge and experience of office software applications Additional languages desirable. "

It sounds like they are getting serious. The additional languages might be significant. But this bit at the end is surprising.

"This is a full time position requiring a minimum of 35 hours per week and a maximum of 40."

A maximum work week of 40 hours! I wonder if there are any universities anywhere in the world who have that. And I bet they don't in Shanghai.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Article on Rankings

There is a detailed and thorough review of recent developments by David Jobbins in University World News:

First shots fired in ranking war
Ranking News

There has been a lot news from the rankosphere over the last week.

On the 8th of March QS World University Rankings announced that they were launching their 2010 Research.

"largest review of international universities ever conducted

* Over 2000 participating universities from more than 130 countries

* Over 200,000 university selections by academics, for excellence in research quality*

* 5000 participating employers"

If the response is similar to last year when the average academic reviewer listed 12 universities, then 200,000 university selections would mean about 17,000 respondents, quite a big jump. Two thousand participating universities would mean more than doubling the number of universities assessed, a very good idea in principle, although there could be logistical problems and, of course, the chances of embarassing errors will increase.

Meanwhile, QS have started a new newsletter QS Rankings & Global Higher Education Trends and also started a question and answer page.

On the 11th of March, Times Higher Education announced:

"The biggest and most ambitious project to measure universities' academic reputation for the Times Higher Education World University Rankings was launched this week.

Thomson Reuters, the exclusive data supplier and analyst for the THE rankings in 2010 and beyond, unveiled its Academic Reputation Survey in Philadelphia on 11 March.

Over the coming weeks, thousands of academics around the world, who have been carefully selected as being statistically representative of the global academic workforce, will be asked to complete a short, invitation-only survey to state which in their opinion are the strongest universities in their fields of expertise.

In a major new development, the survey will gather opinions on the standards of both research and teaching, raising the prospect of the first worldwide reputation-based measure of teaching quality in higher education. "

It sounds like THE are going to draw much of their survey sample from the database of Thomson Reuters. In other words they will survey only or mainly published researchers, which is highly appropriate if research quality is the only thing that is being assessed. Now that THE are going to ask about teaching quality, it might be worth thinking about also surveying teaching-only university staff and undergraduate and postgraduate students.

So we are going to have the largest review ever conducted versus the biggest and most ambitious project. Whatever happened to that British gift for understatement?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Comparing Two Surveys

Over the last few years university rankings have acquired a large audience. Each year since 2003 , when the first Shanghai index came out, the ups and downs of universities, especially in East and Southeast Asia, have commanded almost as much attention as the fortunes of national football teams.

This year it seems that competition between the rankers, Times Higher Education and their former partners, QS, will be get as much attention as that between universities and a lot of that attention will go to the merits or flaws of the surveys that are now under way.

Times Higher have just announced the launching of the new reputational survey while QS have started a sign -up facility. If THE are going to start the survey now then they could create a problem for QS since after one e-mail message plus a few follow-ups (I expect Ipsos MORI will tell them about this) and, for some people, a form from the EU rankings, severe ranking fatigue will set in and the later survey forms will go unanswered.

Here are some points of comparison of the two main surveys that will be filling academic e-mail boxes in the next few weeks or months.

Indicator Weighting

QS have stated that their survey will continue to have a weighting of 40 percent. Times Higher say that theirs will have a smaller weighting but have not said exactly how small. Probably the reduction will not be too great if the expense and effort of conducting a survey is to be justified.


The bulk of QS's survey respondents have come from the mailing lists of World Scientific, a Singapore based publishing company that is linked with Imperial College London and has had a close relationship with Peking University. Others, mainly in the humanities and social sciences, have come from Mardev, a company that collects academic addresses. Some no doubt have been identified during QS's various seminars and tours. This year QS have added a sign up facility that will screen those who wish to take part.

THE will get most of their respondents from the Thomson Reuters internal database by which they presumably mean authors of papers in ISI-indexed journals and conference proceedings, supplemented by so far unidentified third party sources.

The basic qualification then for participating in the QS survey is therefore to subscribe to a newsletter from World Scientific. For the THE survey it will be to to have published a paper in a reputable academic journal or conference proceedings. The THE respondents should then be better qualified to comment on research quality, although one might note that the assigning of the role of first or corresponding author is sometimes a political decision rather than a recognition of actual contributions to a research project.


THE have said that they are aiming at a target of 25,000 participants. QS appear to be aiming at close to 17,000 this year.

Regional and Disciplinary Balance

QS have stated that they weight by discipline and subject when selecting potential respondents from the World Scientific and Mardev databases. After data collection they balance responses between three super- egions, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, Europe and the Middle east, but not apparently within those regions. THE have stated they will distribute the survey forms to reflect the world distribution of academic researchers geographically and in terms of discipline.


THE have stated that they will be asking questions about teaching and research and that the questions about research will be more focused than in the past. QS will continue to ask only about research, which is a little odd since their respondents probably include many who teach but do not do research.


Last year the THE- QS forms could be answered in English or Spanish. QS may be including other language options this year. So far, it looks as though the THE forms will be entirely in English.


It appears that THE may produce a valid survey of the opinion of recently published researchers that reflects the current global distribution of academic research activity. The main problem may well be that there will be a serious conflict between quantity and quality. Academic e-mail addresses are highly degradable and THE may find that many of their published researchers have retired, been downsized, moved, died, forgotten their password or just got fed up with filling out online survey forms. If, in pursuit of the targeted 25,000, they are forced to start trying to contact scientists who published an article (or just put their names on the work of graduate students) several years ago the validity of the survey may become questionable.

On the other hand, it would seem an error for QS to insist on continuing to ask only about research. The THE-QS survey was a dubious measure of research performance but it might have more credibility if it also measured teaching quality or social and economic contributions.

On balance, it would seem that THE, if it can get the the number of respondents it needs, will produce a more accurate and credible survey of opinion about research, although QS might claim that by reaching out to university teachers and non-English speakers they are providing a platform for those whose views ought to be considered in any opinion survey.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Times Higher has a leader by Ann Mroz on the rising tide of academic bureaucracy, to which, we might add, rankings, ratings and assessment have made no small contribution.

"But banal and mind-numbing though it is, bureaucracy isn't neutral. It is insidious, changing the nature of both teaching and research; it also, of course, has been used to push academics in uncomfortable directions.

A scary new word to emerge in our cover story is "hyper-bureaucracy", which describes "an out-of-control system" that emerges in the search for optimum efficiency and takes no account of the costs in time, energy and money that are needed to achieve it. It is a bureaucratic nightmare in which there is no end to the extra information that can be acquired. The monitoring of contact hours and how academics spend their time are examples of the type of bureaucracy that "eats up people and resources", according to Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick. "

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Comment from Tines Higher

Phil Baty in today's Times Higher Education explains why the rankings need an overhaul despite their growing influence.

"So if the rankings have become an accepted reference point, why are we making such dramatic changes, switching our data provider and revamping our methodology? We are doing so precisely because the rankings have become such a respected reference point. If they are starting to influence strategic thinking and even government policy, we have a responsibility to make them as rigorous as possible."
Article on Rankings in Nature

A substantial article on developments in international university rankings by Declan Butler has appeared here.

Some extracts:

"Several approaches to university rankings now being developed are switching the emphasis away from crude league tables and towards more nuanced assessments that could provide better guidance for policy-makers, funding bodies, researchers and students alike. They promise to rank universities on a much wider range of criteria, and assess more intangible qualities, such as educational excellence. And the THE ranking list is trying to remake itself in the face of the criticism."

On the new Times Higher Education rankings

"Thomson Reuters plans to continue reputational surveys, but aims to have at least 25,000 reviewers, compared with the 4,000 used by QS for the THE 2009 rankings. It has partnered with UK pollster Ipsos MORI to try to ensure the survey is representative. "We are not doing this randomly, but putting a lot of thought behind it," says Simon Pratt, project manager for institutional research at Thomson Reuters. "We want a more balanced view across all subject areas." The THE will continue to rank all universities in the form of a league table, which critics say offers a false precision that exaggerates differences between institutions. But the new rankings will be more nuanced and detailed, according to Pratt, including data that enable institutions to compare themselves on various indicators with peers having similar institutional profiles."

On the European Union rankings

"U-Multirank also hopes to overcome one of the major criticisms of many existing ranking systems: that they focus excessively on research output, neglecting the many other crucial roles that universities have, not least teaching. Indeed, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and generally known as the Shanghai index, focuses exclusively on research output and citation impact, including variables such as numbers of Nobel prizewinners and publications in Nature and Science(see 'Top marks')."

On the QS rankings

"QS intends to continue developing its university ranking despite losing its link to the THE. "We will continue improving the methodology and response levels to the surveys," says Sowter, adding that he welcomes the new competition. Other experts say that having more rankings will be beneficial, as it will reduce the undue influence of any one ranking."

I would like to add one point. I have been as critical of QS as anyone but it is rather unfair to talk about 4,000+ respondents to their academic survey. They had 4,000 new respondents last year, making a total of 9,000+.