Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The THE MENA Ranking: Interesting Results.

Times Higher Education (THE) has just published its ranking of universities in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. It is, according to THE's rankings editor Phil Baty, "just a snapshot" of what MENA rankings might look like after consultation.with interested parties.

The ranking contains precisely one indicator, field-normalised citations, meaning that it is not the number of citations that matter but the number compared to the world average in specific fields. This was the flagship indicator in the THE world rankings and it is surprising that THE should continue using it in a region where it is inappropriate and produces extremely implausible results.

Number one in MENA is Texas A & M University at Qatar. This is basically an engineering school, evidently of a very high quality, and it is not clear whether is a genuinely independent institution. It offers undergraduate courses in engineering and has master's programmes in chemical engineering. Its output of research is meagre, as THE obligingly indicates in its press release.

How then did it get to the top of a research impact ranking? Easily. One of its faculty, with a joint appointment with the mother campus in Texas, is one of the collaborators on a multi-contributor paper emanating from CERN. I will leave it somebody else to count the number of contributors.

Another CERN collaborator, Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco is in sixth place. King Abdulaziz University is third.

There are ten Egyptian universities in the top thirty, including Alexandria but not Cairo.



Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slipping down the curve

The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education has produced an analysis of the performance of American millenials (young adults born after 1980 and aged 16-34 at the time of assessment) on the  Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) conducted by the OECD. The analysis  may be over-optimistic in places but in general it is a devastating forecast of a coming crisis for American higher education and very probably for American society.

American millenials are by historical and international standards well educated, at least in terms of the number of years of schooling but also, on average  less literate, less numerate and less able to solve problems than their international counterparts. To be blunt, they appear to be relatively less intelligent.

Let's start with the literacy scores for adults aged 16 to 65 tested by PIAAC, that is basically the adults making up the current work force.

The  average score for OECD countries is 273. There is nothing unusual at the top -- Japan 296, Finland 288, the Netherlands 284.

The score for the  USA is 270,  just below average.and  better than six OECD countries. Overall the USA is at the moment  mediocre compared with other developed nations.

Turning to numeracy, the OECD average is 269.  Once again the top is dominated by East Asia and the shores of the Baltic and North Seas: Japan (288), Finland (282), Flanders (280), the Netherlands (280). The USA at 253 is well below average.  Only Italy and Spain have lower scores.

For problem solving in technology-rich environments, the USA, with a score of 277 is again below the OECD average of 283.

This is the current work force, below average for literacy and problem solving, well below average for numeracy. It includes many who will soon die or retire and will be replaced by the millenial and post-millennial generations.

Take a look at the millenials. The gap is widening. For literacy the 6 point gap between the OECD average and the USA for 16-65 year olds becomes 8 points for the millennials.

For numeracy, the 13 point gap for 16 -65 year olds has become 21 points for the millenials and for problem solving 6 points becomes 9.

The situation becomes bleaker when we look at those who fail to meet minimum proficiency standards. Fifty percent of US milllenials score below literacy level 3,  64% below numeracy level 3, figures exceeded only by Spain, and 56% below level 2 proficiency in problem solving, the worst among developed countries reporting data.

Nor is there any hope that there may be a recovery from the younger section of the cohort, those aged between 16 and 24. The literacy gap remains the same at eight points but the numeracy and problem solving gaps each increase by an additional point.

The report also emphasises the large and increasing gap between the high and low skilled. Here there is a big danger. A gap can be closed from two ends and in the US it is easy to drag down high achievers by curtailing Advanced Placement programs, grade inflation, removal of cognitive content from college courses, group projects, holistic admissions and assessment and so on. The problem is that the closing of domestic gaps in this way just widens the international gap.






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Free Speech Ranking

As the First Armoured Division made its way across Libya towards Tunisia at the end of 1942 and in early 1943, the troops were kept busy with early morning PT, lectures on "my county" and "the Everest expedition" and debates on things like "the Channel Tunnel would be a benefit". In his diary, my father, then a humble signalman, recounted another debate on whether "permanent conscription is a national asset: "Horace as usual made a vociferous speech and he said, ' There, bang goes my two stripes'"    

The spectacle of soldiers in the middle of a war  arguing against government policy with no more penalty than forfeiting two stripes -- if, in fact, Horace ever did lose them -- sounds slightly surreal today. Especially so, now that western schools, universities and other organisations appear to be becoming more and more hostile to "dangerous" ideas, a category that seems to be expanding relentlessly.

The British online magazine Spiked has just published its first Free Speech University Rankings, which are worth reading in detail.

These are actually ratings, not rankings, and divide universities into three categories:

  • Red: has actively banned and censored ideas on campus
  • Amber: has chilled free speech through intervention
  • Green: has a hand-off approach to free speech.
Only 23 universities fall into the Green category and of those only three -- Exeter, Southampton and York are in the Russell Group and only three -- South Bank, Metropolitan and City Universities  -- in London.

Just a few examples:

Birkbeck University Students Union has apparently banned UKIP, because "homophobia, Islamophobia, disablism, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, fascism, and general discrimination [sic!] is rife amongst its members, supporters, officials, and prospective candidates".  If that wasn't bad enough, "John Sullivan, UKIP candidate for Forest of Dean and West Gloucestershire, said that regular physical exercise for boys released tension and thus avoided homosexuality."

The University of East London Students Union has banned materials opposing unrestricted abortion because "any material displayed in the Union building should adhere to the principle of ‘safe space’ and which resolves to ‘ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement".

The University of Warwick noting the protected characteristics of "age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and marriage or civil partnership" prohibits "displaying material that is likely to cause offence to others" or "spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone."






Monday, February 09, 2015

Affiliation in the News Again

Haaretz has published a story about Ariel University, in the occupied West Bank, suggesting that it is offering to pay researchers for adding its name to papers and grant proposals.

The report may be biased and the offer, which seems to apply to only one field, is probably an attempt to get round local and international ostracism. It is a much less blatant attempt to buy affiliations and therefore citations than the wholesale distribution of part time contracts by King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah to researchers on the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited lists.

Another case of affiliation abuse was that of Mohamed El Naschie, formerly editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, and writer of many articles that were cited frequently by himself and a few friends. El Naschie was also fond of giving himself affiliations that had little or no substance: Cambridge where he was a Visiting Scholar, allowed to use the library and other facilities, the University of Surrey for no discernible reason, and Alexandria University with which he had a tenuous connection.

Most of El Naschie's affiliation did not mean very much.  Cambridge was getting lots of citations anyway and did not need him. But Alexandria University produced a modest amount of research and El Naschie's self-citations went a long way and took Alexandria into the top 200 of the THE 2010 world university rankings.

This sort of thing is likely to continue, especially since there is now a stream of papers and reviews in physics and sometimes in medicine and genetics that have hundreds  of contributors and scores of contributing institutions. A part-time contract with a contributor to the Review of Particle Physics that includes adding the institution as a secondary affiliation could give an enormous boost to citation counts, especially if they are field and year- normalised..

It would be a good idea for academic editors and publishers to review their policies about the listing of affiliations. Perhaps second (or more) affiliations should only be allowed if documentary evidence of a significant connection is provided.

Likewise rankers ought to think about not counting secondary affiliations, as Shanghai Center for World Class Universities did last year, or giving them a reduced weighting.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Ranking Universities is a Really Serious Business

It seems that Webometrics has been hacked. Let's hope the problem is sorted out soon.


Ranking Web of Universities was attacked by external hackers. They did published hate messages and they had access to the Ranking, changing significantly the rank of at least one university and altering the structure and arrangement of the system. We are trying to fix the problems and sincerely apologize for any inconvenience. We hope to be able to be back in a few days with very exciting news and updated information. Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

New York Times said it was a really big gap closing. It didn't seem so big then.

[Apologies to Bob Dylan, 'Talkin' New York']


The world of education is obsessed with gaps. Every time the PISA results come out there is renewed concern about the stubborn and growing gap between the United States and some Asian and Eastern European countries although the US should perhaps be congratulated for every large ethnic group doing as well or better than its international counterparts.

At the same time, there is recurrent anguish over the failure of African Americans and Hispanics to match the academic achievements of Whites and (East?) Asians.

According to the New York Times (NYT), the huge achievement gap between wealthy and poor American children is a major cause of the mediocre performance of the American economy. Just closing the American gap and going up a few points in the PISA rankings would apparently boost the economy significantly and create billions of tax revenues.

So how to do this? The NYT reports that a recent study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth claims that things like more early childhood education, reducing lead paint exposure and letting students sleep a bit more will do the trick.

And has anyone managed to close the gap? Yes, according to the study, Montgomery County in Maryland, an affluent, racially mixed county near Washington DC, 


 "was able to reduce the gap and increase scores after instituting all-day kindergarten programs, reducing class size, investing in teacher development and reducing housing -based segregation in its schools and a host of other reforms, Montgomery County, Maryland was successful in both improving average achievement test scores and reducing achievement gaps. The percentage of 5th graders reading at or above the proficient level on the Maryland State Assessment rose for all racial and ethnic groups between 2003 and 2009. In addition, gaps between the disproportionately lower-income black and Hispanic students and the disproportionately higher-income white and Asian students narrowed.”

So we should all go to Montgomery County to find out how to close the gap, bring America up to OECD or even Finnish or Korean standards and achieve Chinese rates of economic growth?

Perhaps not.

The good news from Montgomery was a little surprising because I was sure that I had read a story that painted a rather less cheerful picture of the school system there.

Here it is. From the Washington Post of March 12, 2013. 'In Montgomery schools, the achievement gap widens in some areas', by Donna St George

"The achievement gap that separates white and Asian students from black and Latino students has grown wider in Montgomery County in several measures of academic success, according to a report released Tuesday."
“The 130-page report points to progress in five of 11 performance indicators in recent years. The school system improved on gaps in school readiness and high school graduation, for example. But disparities widened in advanced-level scores for state math exams in third, fifth and eighth grades. There were mixed results in two categories.”
Locals were baffled how the school system could spend so much money and still do so badly.
' “We still rank as one of the top spenders nationally in education, and then to lose ground is extremely concerning,” said Council Vice President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), who called for more urgency. “It just boggles my mind that this can be so far below the radar.” '

But evidently the preferred solution is more money.

Montgomery Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he agrees with most of the analysis. He wrote,
  “much of the $10 million the school system is seeking above mandatory funding levels in its budget proposal would help address achievement disparities, including 30 “focus” teachers to reduce class sizes in English and math at middle and high schools where students are struggling."

Anyway, here are some extracts from the report from Montgomery County itself.
“This report finds that since 2008 MCPS has made progress, but significant achievement gaps remain, particularly among measures of at-risk academic performance. Over the same period, MCPS also lost ground in narrowing the achievement gap among several measures of above grade level performance that align with MCPS’ Seven Keys initiative and the Common Core State Standards.”
and
“MCPS narrowed the achievement gap across five measures: school readiness, MSA proficiency, suspensions, academic ineligibility, and graduation rates. These gaps narrowed by increasing the performance of most subgroups while accelerating the performance of the lowest performing subgroups."
and
“MCPS achieved mixed or no progress in narrowing the gap on two measures: dropout rates and completion of USM or CTE program requirements among graduates. For these two measures, MCPS tended to narrow the gap by race and ethnicity, but did not achieve the same progress among service groups. “
and
“MCPS’ achievement gap widened across four measures: MSA advanced scores, Algebra 1 completion by Grade 8 with C or higher, AP/IB performance, and SAT/ACT performance. Among these four measures of above grade level performance that align with MCPS’ Seven Keys, high performing subgroups made greater gains on these benchmarks than low performing subgroups, thus widening the gap. More specifically: • The MSA Advanced Gaps in Grade 3 narrowed across most subgroups for reading by 2-7% but widened for math by 5-33% from 2007 to 2012; the Grade 5 gaps narrowed across most subgroups for reading by 2-16% but widened for math by 3-37%, and the Grade 8 gaps widened for both reading and math by 9-56%. • The Algebra 1 by Grade 8 with C or Higher Gap widened by 7-19% by race, ethnicity, special education, and FARMS status from 2010 to 2012, but narrowed by 7% by ESOL status. • The AP/IB Performance Gap among graduates widened by 6-37% by race, ethnicity, and service group status from 2007 to 2012. • The SAT/ACT Performance Gap among graduates held constant by special education and ESOL status from 2010 to 2012, but increased by race, ethnicity, and income by 3-6%."
So. Montgomery County reduced the gap for grade 5 reading for most subgroups but it widened for math. By Grade 8 it widened for reading and math, as did the AP/IB performance gap and the SAT/ACT gap for most groups.

When we get to the Center for Equitable growth and the New York Times, only the grade 5 reading improvement remains and the  failures in other areas have disappeared. How very careless of them.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Quality and Bias in University Rankings

I have just finished reading a very interesting unpublished paper, 'Measuring University Quality' by Christopher Claassen of the University of Essex.

He finds that all the major international rankings tap to some extent an underlying unidimensional trait of university quality and that this is measured more accurately by the US News Best Global Universities, the Center for World University Rankings (Jeddah) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai).

He also finds that these rankings are not biased towards their home countries, in contrast to the Times Higher Education, QS and Webometrics rankings.