It seems that things are changing. Around the world there excellence initiatives, one element of which is often improving the position of aspiring universities in international rankings, are proliferating.
It should be a major concern that higher education policies and priorities are influenced or even determined by publications that are problematic and incomplete in several ways. Rankings count what can be counted and that usually means a strong emphasis on research. Indeed, in the case of the Taiwan, URAP and Shanghai rankings that is all they are concerned with. Attempts to measure teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, have been rather haphazard. Although the US News Best US Colleges ranking includes measures of class size, admission standards, course completion and peer evaluation indicators in global rankings such as THE and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) focus on inputs such as staff student ratio or income that might have some relation to eventual student or graduate outcomes.
It is sad that some major universities are less interested in developing the assessment of teaching or student quality and more in adjusting their policies and missions to the agenda of the rankings, particularly the THE world rankings.
Yale is now jumping on the rankings carousel. For decades it has been happily sitting on top of the US News college rankings making up the top three along with Princeton and Harvard. But Yale does much less well in the current global rankings. This year it is ranked 11th by the Shanghai rankings, 9th among US universities, 15th by QS, 7th among US universities and behind Nanyang Technological University and Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne, and 12th in THE world rankings, 8th in the USA.
"For an example of investing where Yale must be strong, I want to touch very briefly on rankings, although I share your nervousness about being overly reliant on what are far-from-perfect indicators. With our unabashed emphasis on undergraduate education, strong teaching in Yale College, and unsurpassed residential experience, Yale has long boasted one of the very highest-ranked colleges, perennially among the top three. In the ratings of world research universities, however, we tend to be somewhere between tenth and fifteenth. This discrepancy points to an opportunity, and that opportunity is science, as it is the sciences that most differentiate Yale from those above us on such lists."
The reasons for the difference between the US and the world rankings are that Yale is relatively small compared to the other Ivy League members and the leading state universities, that it is strong in the arts and humanities, and that it has a good reputation for undergraduate teaching.
One of the virtues of global ranking is the exposure of the weaknesses of western universities especially in the teaching of and research in STEM subjects and it does no harm for Yale to shift a bit from the humanities and social sciences to the hard sciences. To take account of research based rankings with a consistent methodology such as URAP, National Taiwan University or the Shanghai rankings is quite sensible. But Yale is asking for trouble if it becomes overly concerned with rankings such as THE or QS that are inclined to destabilising changes in methodology, rely on subjective survey data, assign disproportionate weights to certain indicators, emphasise input such as income or faculty resources rather than actual achievement, are demonstrably biased, and include indicators that are extremely counter-intuitive (Anglia Ruskin with a research impact equal to Princeton and greater than Yale, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile 28th in the world for employer reputation) .
Yale would be better off if it encouraged the development of cross-national tools to measure student achievement and quality of teaching or ranking metrics that assigned more weight to the humanities and social sciences.