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Thursday, August 03, 2017

America's Top Colleges: 2017 Rankings

America's Top Colleges is published by Forbes business magazine. It is an unabashed assessment of institutions from the viewpoint of the student as investor. The metrics are post-graduate success, debt, student experience, graduation rate and academic success.

The top three colleges are Harvard, Stanford and Yale.

The top three liberal arts colleges are Pomona, Claremont McKenna and Williams.

The top three low debt private colleges are College of the Ozarks, Berea College and Princeton.

The top three STEM colleges are MIT, Caltech and Harvey Mudd College.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Comments on an Article by Brian Leiter

Global university rankings are now nearly a decade and a half old. The Shanghai rankings (Academic Ranking of World Universities or ARWU) began in 2003, followed a year later by Webometrics and the THES-QS rankings which, after an unpleasant divorce, became the Times Higher Education (THE) and the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world rankings. Since then the number of rankings with a variety of audiences and methodologies has expanded.

We now have several research-based rankings, University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP) from Turkey, the National Taiwan University Rankings, Best Global Universities from US NewsLeiden Ranking, as well as rankings that include some attempt to assess and compare something other than research, the Round University Rankings from Russia and U-Multirank from the European Union. And, of course, we also have subject rankingsregional rankings, even age group rankings.

It is interesting that some of these rankings have developed beyond the original founders of global rankings. Leiden Ranking is now the gold standard for the analysis of publications and citations. The Russian rankings use the same Web of Science database that THE did until 2014 and it has 12 out of the 13 indicators used by THE plus another eight in a more sensible and transparent arrangement. However, both of these receive only a fraction of the attention given to the THE rankings.

The research rankings from Turkey and Taiwan are similar to the Shanghai rankings but without the elderly or long departed Fields and Nobel award winners and with a more coherent methodology. U-Multirank is almost alone in trying to get at things that might be of interest to prospective undergraduate students.

It is regrettable that an article by Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago in the Chronicle of Higher Education , 'Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank' ignores such developments and mentions only the original “Big Three”, Shanghai, QS and THE. This is perhaps forgivable since the establishment media, including THE and the Chronicle, and leading state and academic bureaucrats have until recently paid very little attention to innovative developments in university ranking. Leiter attacks the QS rankings and proposes that they should be boycotted while trying to improve the THE rankings.

It is a little odd that Leiter should be so caustic, not entirely without justification, about QS while apparently being unaware of similar or greater problems with THE.

He begins by saying that QS stands for “quirky silliness”. I would not disagree with that although in recent years QS has been getting less silly. I have been as sarcastic as anyone about the failings of QS: see here and here for an amusing commentary.

But the suggestion that QS is uniquely bad in contrast to THE is way off the target. There are many issues with the QS methodology, especially with its employer and academic surveys, and it has often announced placings that seem very questionable such as Nanyang Technological University (NTU) ahead of Princeton and Yale or the University of Buenos Aires in the world top 100, largely as a result of a suspiciously good performance in the survey indicators. The oddities of the QS rankings are, however, no worse than some of the absurdities that THE has served up in their world and regional rankings.  We have had places like University of Marakkesh Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco, Middle East Technical University in Turkey, Federico Santa Maria Technical University in Chile, Alexandria University and Veltech University in India rise to ludicrously high places, sometimes just for a year or two, as the result of a few papers or even a single highly cited author.

I am not entirely persuaded that NTU deserves its top 12 placing in the QS rankings. You can see here QS’s unconvincing reply to a question that I provided. QS claims that NTU's excellence is shown by its success in attracting foreign faculty, students and collaborators, but when you are in a country where people show their passports to drive to the dentist, being international is no great accomplishment. Even so, it is evidently world class as far as engineering and computer science are concerned and it is not impossible that it could reach an undisputed overall top ten or twenty ranking the next decade.

While the THE top ten or twenty or even fifty looks quite reasonable, apart from Oxford in first place, there are many anomalies as soon as we start breaking the rankings apart by country or indicator and THE has pushed some very weird data in recent years. Look at these places supposed to be regional or international centers of across the board research excellence as measured by citations: St Georges University of London, Brandeis University, the Free University of Bozen-Bolsano,  King Abdulaziz University, the University of Iceland, Veltech University. If QS is silly what are we to call a ranking where Anglia Ruskin University is supposed to have a greater research impact than Chicago, Cambridge or Tsinghua.

Leiter starts his article by pointing out that the QS academic survey is largely driven by the geographical distribution of its respondents and by the halo effect. This is very probably true and to that I would add that a lot of the responses to academic surveys of this kind are likely driven by simple self interest, academics voting for their alma mater or current employer. QS does not allow respondents to vote for the latter but they can vote for the former and also vote for grant providers or collaborators.

He says that “QS does not, however, disclose the geographic distribution of its survey respondents, so the extent of the distorting effect cannot be determined". This is not true of the overall survey. QS does in fact give very detailed figures about the origin of its respondents and there is good evidence here of probable distorting effects. There are, for example, more responses from Taiwan than from Mainland China, and almost as many from Malaysia as from Russia. QS does not, however, go down to subject level when listing geographic distribution.

He then refers to the case of University College Cork (UCC) asking faculty to solicit friends in other institutions to vote for UCC. This is definitely a bad practice, but it was in violation of QS guidelines and QS have investigated. I do not know what came of the investigation but it is worth noting that the message would not have been an issue if it had referred to the THE survey.

On balance, I would agree that THE ‘s survey methodology is less dubious than QS’s and less likely to be influenced by energetic PR campaigns. It would certainly be a good idea if the weighting of the QS survey was reduced and if there was more rigorous screening and classification of potential respondents.

But I think we also have to bear in mind that QS does prohibit respondents from voting for their own universities and it does average results out over a five- year period (formerly three years).

It is interesting that while THE does not usually combine and average survey results it did so in the 2016-17 world rankings combining the 2015 and 2016 survey results. This was, I suspect, probably because of a substantial drop in 2016 in the percentage of respondents from the arts and humanities that would, if unadjusted, have caused a serious problem for UK universities, especially those in the Russell Group.

Leiter then goes on to condemn QS for its dubious business practices. He reports that THE dropped QS because of its dubious practices. That is what THE says but it is widely rumoured within the rankings industry that THE was also interested in the financial advantages of a direct partnership with Thomson Reuters rather than getting data from QS.

He also refers to QS’s hosting a series of “World Class events” where world university leaders pay $950 for “seminar, dinners, coffee breaks” and “learn best practice for branding and marketing your institution through case studies and expert knowledge” and the QS stars plan where universities pay to be audited by QS in return for stars that they can use for promotion and advertising. I would add to his criticism that the Stars program has apparently undergone a typical “grade inflation” with the number of five-star universities increasing all the time.

Also, QS offers specific consulting services and it has a large number of clients from around the world although there are many more from Australia and Indonesia than from Canada and the US. Of the three from the US one is MIT which has been number one in the QS world rankings since 2012, a position it probably achieved after a change in the way in which faculty were classified.

It would, however, be misleading to suggest that THE is any better in this respect. Since 2014 it has launched a serious and unapologetic “monetisation of data” program.

There are events such as the forthcoming world "academic summit" where for 1,199 GBP (standard university) or 2,200 GBP (corporate), delegates can get "Exclusive insight into the 2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings at the official launch and rankings masterclass,”, plus “prestigious gala dinner, drinks reception and other networking events”. THE also provides a variety of benchmarking and performance analysis services, branding, advertising and reputation management campaigns and a range of silver and gold profiles, including adverts and sponsored supplements. THE’s data clients include some illustrious names like the National University of Singapore and Trinity College Dublin plus some less well-known places such as Federico Santa Maria Technical University, Orebro University, King Abdulaziz University, National Research Nuclear University MEPhI Moscow, and Charles Darwin University.

Among THE’s activities are regional events that promise “partnership opportunities for global thought leaders” and where rankings like “the WUR are presented at these events with our award-winning data team on hand to explain them, allowing institutions better understanding of their findings”.

At some of these summits the rankings presented are trimmed and tweaked and somehow the hosts emerge in a favourable light. In February 2015, for example, THE held a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) summit that included a “snapshot ranking” that put Texas A and M University Qatar, a branch campus that offers nothing but engineering courses, in first place and Qatar University in fourth. The ranking consisted of precisely one indicator out of the 13 that make up THE’s world university rankings, field and year normalised citations. United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) was 11th and the American University of Sharjah in the UAE 14th.  

The next MENA summit was held in January 2016 in Al Ain in UAE. There was no snapshot this time and the methodology for the MENA rankings included 13 indicators in THE’s world rankings. Host country universities were now in fifth (UAEU) and eighth place (American University in Sharjah). Texas A and M Qatar was not ranked and Qatar University fell to sixth place.

Something similar happened to Africa. In 2015, THE went to the University of Johannesburg for a summit that brought together “outstanding global thought leaders from industry, government, higher education and research” and which unveiled THE’s Africa ranking based on citations (with the innovation of fractional counting) that put the host university in ninth place and the University of Ghana in twelfth.

In 2016 the show moved on to the University of Ghana where another ranking was produced based on all the 13 world ranking indicators. This time the University of Johannesburg did not take part and the University of Ghana went from 12th place to 7th.

I may have missed something but so far I do not see sign of THE Africa or MENA summits planned for 2017. If so, then African and MENA university leaders are to be congratulated for a very healthy scepticism.

To be fair, THE does not seem to have done any methodological tweaking for this year’s Asian, Asia Pacific and Latin American rankings.

Leiter concludes that American academics should boycott the QS survey but not THE’s and that they should lobby THE to improve its survey practices. That, I suspect, is pretty much a nonstarter. QS has never had much a presence in the US anyway and THE is unlikely to change significantly as long as its commercial dominance goes unchallenged and as long as scholars and administrators fail to see through its PR wizardry. It would be better for everybody to start looking beyond the "Big Three" rankings.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Comparing the THE and QS Academic Reputation Surveys

Times Higher Education (THE) has just published its 2017 reputation rankings which include 100 universities. These are based on a survey distributed between January and March of this year and will be included, after standardisation, in the 2017-18 (or 2018) World University Rankings scheduled for publication in a few months. In the forthcoming world rankings the reputation survey will be divided into two metrics in the research and teaching indicator groups, with a combined weighting of 33 percent. The survey asked about research and postgraduate teaching but since the correlation between these two questions is very high there is effectively only one indicator.

The QS world rankings released last week included scores derived from two surveys, one of academics with a 40% weighting and one of employers with 10%. The academic survey was concerned only with research.

The methodology of the THE survey is relatively simple. The respondents are drawn from the database of researchers with publications in Scopus indexed journals, in other words those who get to be listed as corresponding author. THE claims that this makes them experienced senior researchers although in many parts of the world being a member or leader of a research team often has more to do with politics than merit.

In contrast, the QS methodology has changed quite a lot over the last few years. It began with scouring the mailing lists of World Scientific, a Singapore based academic publisher with links to Imperial College London, then adding various other channels including lists supplied by institutions and sign up facilities for potential respondents. The result is a survey that appears more inclusive than THE's with more respondents from outside the elite but one whose validity may be rather suspect.

The THE ranking found that there were six super-brand universities that stood out from everyone else, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford, and Berkeley. There was a big gap between Berkeley and number seven Princeton and then the long smooth slope continues. 

After that, the ranking is dominated by English speaking universities, with the USA contributing 42, the UK 10, Canada 3 and Australia 3.  East Asia and the Chinese diaspora (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) are fairly well represented, while South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa are absent.

For any survey a great deal depends on how the forms are distributed. Last year, the THE survey had a lot more responses from the social sciences, including economics and business studies, and fewer from the arts and the humanities, and that contributed to some Asian universities rising and some British ones falling.

Such falls are typically attributed in the education establishment media to anxiety about the looming horrors of Brexit, the vicious snatching of research funds and the rising tide of hostility to international students.

This year British Universities did a bit better in the THE reputation ranking this year with five going up, three staying put and three going down. No doubt we will soon hear about the invigorating effects of Brexit and the benefits of austerity.  Perhaps also it might have something to do with the number of survey responses from the arts and humanities going up from  9% to 12.5%, something that would surely benefit UK universities.

The QS reputation indicator has the same universities in the top six but not in quite the same order: Cambridge, fourth in THE, is second in the QS indicator. After that it starts looking very different. Number seven is the University of Tokyo, which THE puts in 11th place for  academic reputation. Other Asian universities do much better in the QS indicator. The National University of Singapore is 11th ( 27th in THE) Nanyang Technological University  Singapore is 50th (THE 81-90 band), Peking University is 14th (THE 17h) Chulalongkorn University Thailand is 99th (not in the THE top 100).

It is noticeable that Latin American universities such as  the University of Sao Paulo, the University of Buenos Aires and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile get a higher placing in the QS indicator than they do in the THE ranking as do some Southern European universities such as Barcelona, Sapienza and Bologna.

The THE reputation ranking gives us a snapshot of the current views of the world's academic elite and probably underestimates the rising universities of Greater China and Korea. QS cast their nets further and have probably caught a few of tomorrow's world class institutions although I suspect that the Latin American high fliers, apart from Sao Paulo, are very overrated.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ten Universities with a Surprisingly Large Research Impact

Every so often newspapers produce lists of universities that excel in or are noteworthy for something. Here is a list of ten universities that, according to Times Higher Education (THE), have achieved remarkable success in the world of global research. In a time of austerity when the wells of patronage are running dry, they should be an example to us all: they have achieved a massive global research impact, measured by field-normalised citations, despite limited funding, minimal reputations and few or very few publications. The source is the THE World and Asian rankings citations indicator.

1. First on the list is Alexandria University in Egypt,  4th in the world and a near perfect score for research impact in 2010-11.

2. In the same year Hong Kong Baptist University was tenth for research impact, ahead of the University of Chicago and the University of Hong Kong.

3. In 2011-12 Royal Holloway, University of London, was in 12th place, ahead of any other British or European institution.

4. The National Research Nuclear University MEPhI, in Moscow, a specialist  institution, was top of the table for citations in 2012-13.

5. In 2013-14 and 2014-15 Tokyo Metropolitan University had a perfect score of 100 for citations, a distinction shared only with MIT.

6. In 2014-15 Federico Santa Maria Technical University was sixth in the world for research impact and first in Latin America with a near perfect score of 99.7.

7. In the same year Bogazici University in Turkey reached the top twenty for research impact.

8. St George's, University of London, was the top institution in the world for research impact in 2016-17.

9. In that year Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school, was tenth for this metric, equal to Oxford and well ahead of the other university in Cambridge.

10. Last year's THE Asian rankings saw Vel Tech University in Chennai achieve the highest impact of any Asian university. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

The View from Leiden

Ranking experts are constantly warning about the grim fate that awaits the universities of the West if they are not provided with all the money that they want and given complete freedom to hire staff and recruit students from anywhere that they want. If this does not happen they will be swamped by those famously international Asian universities dripping with funds from indulgent patrons.

The threat, if we are to believe the prominent rankers of Times Higher Education (THE), QS and Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, is always looming but somehow never quite arrives. The best Asian performer in the THE world rankings  is the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 24th place followed by Peking University in 29th. The QS World University Rankings have NUS 12th, Nanyang Technological University 13th and Tsinghua University 24th.  The Academic Ranking of World Universities published in Shanghai puts the University of Tokyo in 20th place and Peking University in 71st.

These rankings are in one way or another significantly biased towards Western European and North American institutions and against Asia. THE has three separate indicators that measure income, adding up to a combined weighting of 10.75% . Both QS and THE have reputations surveys. ARWU gives a 30 % weighting to Nobel and Fields awards winners, some of them from several decades ago.

Let's take a look at a set of rankings that is technically excellent, namely the Leiden Ranking. The producers do not provide an overall score. Instead it is possible to create a variety of rankings, total publications, publications by subject groups, publications in the top 50%, 10% and 1% of journals. Users can also select fractional or absolute counting and  change the minimum threshold of number of publications.

Here is the top ten, using  the default settings, publications 2012-15, fractional counting, minimum threshold of 100 papers. Publications in 2006-09 are in brackets.

1. Harvard  (1)
2. Toronto  (2)
3. Zhejiang  (14)
4. Michigan (3)
5. Shanghai Jiao Tong (37)
6. Johns Hopkins (5)
7  Sao Paulo (8)
8. Stanford (9)
9  Seoul National University (23)
10.  Tokyo (4).

Tsinghua University is 11th, up from 32nd in 2006-09 and Peking University is 15th, up from 54th. What is interesting about this is not just that East Asian universities are moving into the highest level of research universities but how rapidly they are doing so.

No doubt there are many who will say that this is a matter of quantity and that what really counts is not the number of papers but their reception by other researchers. There is something to this. If we look at publications in the top 1 % of journals (by frequency of citation) the top ten include six US universities headed by Harvard, three British and one Canadian.

Tsinghua is 28th, Zhejiang is 50th, Peking 62nd, Shanghai Jiao Tong 80th, Seoul National University 85th . Right now it looks like publication in the most reputed journals is dominated by English-speaking universities. But in the last few years Chinese and Korean universities have advanced rapidly, Peking 119th to 62nd, Zhejiang 118th to 50th, Shanghai Jiao Tong 112th to 80th, Tsinghua 101st to 28th, Seoul National University 107th to 85th.

It seems that in a few years East Asia will dominate the elite journals and will take the lead for quality as well as quantity.

Moving on to subject group rankings, Tsinghua University is in first place for mathematics and computer sciences. The top ten consists of nine Chinese and one Singaporean university. The best US performer is MIT in 16th place, the best British Imperial College London in 48th.

When we look at the top 1 % of journals, Tsinghua is still on top, although MIT moves up to 4th place and Stanford is 5th. 

The Asian tsunami has already arrived. East Asian, mainly Chinese and Chinese diaspora, universities, are dominant or becoming dominant in the STEM subjects, leaving the humanities and social sciences to the US.

There will of course be debate about what happened. Maybe money had something to do with it. But it also seems that western universities are becoming much less selective about student admissions and faculty appointments. If you admit students who write #BlackLivesMatter 100 times on their application forms or impose ideological tests for faculty appointment and promotion you may have succeed in imposing political uniformity but you will have serious problems trying to compete with the Gaokao hardened students and researchers of Chinese universities.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Never mind the rankings, THE has a huge database

There has been a debate, or perhaps the beginnings of a debate, about international university rankings following the publication of Bahram Bekhradnia's report to the Higher Education Policy Institute with comments in University World News by Ben SowterPhil BatyFrank Ziegele and Frans van Vought  and Philip Altbach and Ellen Hazelkorn and a guest post by Bekhradnia in this blog.

Bekhradnia argued that global university rankings were damaging and dangerous because they encourage an obsession with research, rely on unreliable or subjective data, and emphasise spurious precision. He suggests that governments, universities and academics should just ignore the rankings.

Times Higher Education (THE) has now published a piece by THE rankings editor Phil Baty that does not really deal with the criticism but basically says that it does not matter very much because the THE database is bigger and better than anyone else's. This he claims is "the true purpose and enduring legacy" of the THE world rankings.

Legacy? Does this mean that THE is getting ready to abandon rankings, or maybe just the world rankings, and go exclusively into the data refining business? 

Whatever Baty is hinting at, if that is what he is doing, it does seem a rather insipid defence of the rankings to say that all the criticism is missing the point because they are the precursor to a big and sophisticated database.

The article begins with a quotation from Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research, at MIT:

“There is no world department of education,” says Lydia Snover, director of institutional research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Times Higher Education, she believes, is helping to fill that gap: “They are doing a real service to universities by developing definitions and data that can be used for comparison and understanding.”

This sounds as though THE is doing something very impressive that nobody else has even thought of doing. But Snover's elaboration of this point in an email gives equal billing to QS and THE as definition developers and suggests the definitions and data that they provide will improve and expand in the future, implying that they are now less than perfect. She says:

"QS and THE both collect data annually from a large number of international universities. For example, understanding who is considered to be “faculty” in the EU, China, Australia, etc.  is quite helpful to us when we want to compare our universities internationally.  Since both QS and THE are relatively new in the rankings business compared to US NEWS, their definitions are still evolving.  As we go forward, I am sure the amount of data they collect and the definitions of that data will expand and improve."

Snover, by the way , is a member of 
the QS advisory board, as is THE's former rankings  "masterclass" partner, Simon Pratt.

Baty offers a rather perfunctory defence of the THE rankings. He talks about rankings bringing great insights into the shifting fortunes of universities. If we are talking about year to year changes then the fact that THE purports to chart shifting fortunes is a very big bug in their methodology. Unless there has been drastic restructuring universities do not change much in a matter of months and any ranking that claims that it is detecting massive shifts over a year is simply advertising its deficiencies.

The assertion that the THE rankings are the most comprehensive and balanced is difficult to take seriously. If by comprehensive it is meant that the THE rankings have more indicators than QS or Webometrics that is correct. But the number of indicators does not mean very much if they are bundled together and the scores hidden from the public and if some of the indicators, the teaching survey and research survey for example, correlate so closely that they are effectively the same thing. In any case, The Russian Round University Rankings have 20 indicators compared with THE's 13 in the world rankings.

As for being balanced, we have already seen Bekhradnia's analysis showing that even the teaching and international outlook criteria in the THE rankings are really about research. In addition, THE gives almost a third of its weighting to citations. In practice that is often even more because the effect of the regional modification, now applied to half the indicator, is to boost in varying degrees the scores of everybody except those in the best performing country. 

After offering a scaled down celebration of the rankings, Baty then dismisses critics while announcing that THE "is quietly [seriously?] getting on with a hugely ambitious project to build an extraordinary and truly unique global resource." 

Perhaps some elite universities, like MIT, will find the database and its associated definitions helpful but whether there is anything extraordinary or unique about it remains to be seen.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What was the greatest ranking insight of 2016?

It is now difficult to imagine a world without university rankings. If they did not exist we would have to make judgements and decisions based on the self-serving announcements of bureaucrats and politicians, reputations derived from the achievements of past decades and popular and elite prejudices.

Rankings sometimes tell us things that are worth hearing. The first edition of the Shanghai rankings revealed emphatically that venerable European universities such as Bologna, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg were lagging behind their Anglo-Saxon competitors. More recently, the rise of research based universities in South Korea and Hong Kong and the relative stagnation of Japan has been documented by global rankings. The Shanghai ARWU also show the steady decline in the relative research capacity of a variety of US institutions including Wake Forest University, Dartmouth College, Wayne State University, the University of Oregon and Washington State University .

International university rankings have developed a lot in recent years and, with their large databases and sophisticated methodology, they can now provide us with an expanding wealth of "great insights into the strengths and shifting fortunes" of major universities.

So what was the greatest ranking insight of 2016?  Here are the first three on my shortlist. I hope to add a few more over the next couple of weeks. If anybody has suggestions I would be happy to publish them.

One. Cambridge University isn't even the best research university in Cambridge.
You may have thought that Cambridge University was one of the best research universities in the UK or Europe, perhaps even the best. But when it comes to research impact, as measured by field and year normalised citations with a 50% regional modification it isn't even the best in Cambridge. That honour, according to THE goes to Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school. Even more remarkable is that this achievement was due to the work of a single researcher. I shall keep the name a secret  in case his or her office becomes a stopping point for bus tours.

Two. The University of Buenos Aires and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile rival the top European, American and Australian universities for graduate employability. 
The top universities for graduate employability according to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) employer survey are pretty obvious: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Stanford. But it seems that there are quite a few Latin American universities in the world top 100 for employability. The University of Buenos Aires is 25th and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile 28th in last year's QS world rankings employer survey indicator. Melbourne is 23rd, ETH 26th, Princeton 32nd and New York University 36th.

Three. King Abdulaziz University is one of the world's  leading universities for engineering.
The conventional wisdom seems settled, pick three or four from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, perhaps even a  star rising in the East like Tsinghua or the National University of Singapore. But in the Shanghai field rankings for Engineering last year the fifth place went to King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. For highly cited researchers in engineering it is second in the world surpassed only by Stanford. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The THE World University Rankings: Arguably the Most Amusing League Table in the World

If ever somebody does get round to doing a ranking of university rankings and if entertainment value is an indicator the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings (WUR) stand a good chance of being at the top.

The latest global rankings contain many items that academics would be advised not to read in public places lest they embarrass the family by sniggering to themselves in Starbucks or Nandos.

THE would, for example, have us believe that St. George's, University of London is the top university in the world for research impact as measured by citations. This institution specialises in medicine, biomedical science and healthcare sciences. It does not do research in the physical sciences, the social sciences, or the arts and humanities and makes no claim that it does. To suggest that it is the best in the world across the range of scientific and academic research is ridiculous.

There are several other universities with scores for citations that are disproportionately higher than their research scores, a sure sign that the THE citations indicator is generating absurdity.  They include Brandeis, the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Clark University, King Abdulaziz University, Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Iceland, and Orebro University, Sweden.

In some cases, it is obvious what has happened. King Abdulaziz University has been gaming the rankings by recruiting large numbers of adjunct faculty whose main function appears to be listing the university as as a secondary affiliation in order to collect a share of the credit for publications and citations. The Shanghai rankers have stopped counting secondary affiliations for their highly cited researchers indicator but KAU is still racking up the points in other indicators and other rankings.

The contention that Anglia Ruskin University is tenth in the world  for research impact, equal to Oxford, Princeton, and UC Santa Barbara, and just above the University of Chicago, will no doubt be met with donnish smirks at the high tables of that other place in Cambridge, 31st for citations, although there will probably be less amusement about Oxford being crowned best university in the world.

Anglia Ruskin 's output of research is not very high, about a thirtieth of Chicago's according to the Web of Science Core Collection. Its faculty does, however, include one Professor who is a frequent contributor to global medical studies with a large number of authors, although never more than a thousand, and hundreds of citations a year. Single-handedly he has propelled the university into the research stratosphere since the rest of the university has been generating few citations (there's nothing wrong with that: it's not that sort of place) and so the number of papers by which the normalised citations are divided is very low.

The THE citations methodology is badly flawed. That university heads give any credence to rankings that include such ludicrous results is sad testimony to the decadence of the modern academy.

There are also many universities that have moved up or down by  a disproportionate number of places. These include:

Peking University rising from 42nd  to 29th
University of  Maryland at College Park rising from 117th to 67th.
Purdue University rising from 113th to 70th.
Chinese  University of Hong Kong rising from 138th  to 76th.
RWTH Aachen rising from 110th to 78th
Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology rising from  148th to 89th

Vanderbilt University falling from 87th to108th
University of Copenhagen falling from 82nd to 120th
Scuola Normale Pisa falling from 112nd to 137th
University of Cape Town falling from 120th to 148th
Royal Holloway, University of London falling from 129th to173rd
Lomonosov Moscow State University falling from 161st to 188th.

The point cannot be stressed too clearly that universities are large and complex organisations. They do not in 12 months or less, short of major restructuring, change sufficiently to produce movements such as these. The only way that such instability could occur is through entry into the rankings of universities with attributes different from the established ones thus changing the means from which standardised scores are derived or significant methodological changes.

There have in fact been significant changes to the methodology this year although perhaps not as substantial as 2015. First, books and book chapters are included in the count of publications and citations, an innovation pioneered by the US News in their Best Global Universities. Almost certainly this has helped English speaking universities with a comparative advantage in the humanities and social sciences although THE's practice of bundling indicators together makes it impossible to say exactly how much. It would also work to the disadvantage of institutions such as Caltech that are comparatively less strong in the arts and humanities.

Second, THE have used a modest version of fractional counting for papers with more than a thousand authors. Last year they were not counted at all. This means that universities that have participated in mega-papers such as those associated with the Large Hadron Collider will get some credit for citations of those papers although not as much as they did in 2014 and before. This has almost certainly helped a number of Asian universities that have participated in such projects but have a generally modest research output. It might have benefitted some universities in California such as UC Berkeley.

Third, THE have combined the results of the academic reputation survey conducted earlier this year with that used in the 2015-16 rankings. Averaging reputation surveys is a sensible idea, already adopted by QS and US News in their global rankings, but one that THE has avoided until now.

This year's survey saw a very large reduction in the number of responses from researchers in the arts and humanities and a very large increase, for reasons unexplained, in the number of responses from business studies and the social sciences, separated now but combined in 2015.

Had the responses for 2016 alone been counted there might have been serious consequences for UK universities, relatively strong in the humanities, and a boost for East Asian universities, relatively strong in business studies. Combining the two surveys would have limited the damage to British universities and slowed down the rise of Asia to media-acceptable proportions.

One possible consequence of these changes is that UC Berkeley, eighth in 2014-15 and thirteenth in 2015-16, is now, as predicted here,  back in the top ten. Berkeley is host for the forthcoming THE world summit although that is no doubt entirely coincidental.

The overall top place has been taken by Oxford to the great joy of the vice-chancellor who is said to be "thrilled" by the news.

I do not want to be unfair to Oxford but the idea that it is superior to Harvard, Princeton, Caltech or MIT is nonsense. Its strong performance in the THE WUR is in large measure due to the over- emphasis in these tables on reputation, income and a very flawed citations indicator. Its rise to first place over Caltech is almost certainly a result of this year's methodological changes.

Let's look at Oxford's standing in other rankings. The Round University Ranking (RUR) uses Thomson Reuters data just like THE did until two years ago. It has 12 of the indicators employed by THE and eight additional ones.

Overall Oxford was 10th, up from 17th in 2010. In the teaching group of five indicators Oxford is in 28th place. For specific indicators in that group the best performance was teaching reputation (6th) and the worst academic staff per bachelor degrees (203rd).

In Research it was 20th. Places ranged from 6th for research reputation to 206th for doctoral degrees per admitted PhD. It was 5th for International Diversity and 12th for Financial Sustainability

The Shanghai ARWU rankings have Oxford in 7th place and Webometrics in 10th (9th for Google Scholar Citations).

THE is said to be trusted by the great and the good of the academic world. The latest example is the Norwegian government including performance in the THE WUR as a criterion for overseas study grants. That trust seems largely misplaced. When the vice-chancellor of Oxford University is thrilled by a ranking that puts the university on a par for research impact with Anglia Ruskin then one really wonders about the quality of university leadership.

To conclude my latest exercise in malice and cynicism, (thank you ROARS) here is a game to amuse international academics .

Ask your friends which university in their country is the leader for research impact and then tell them who THE thinks it is.

Here are THE's research champions, according to the citations indicator:

Argentina: National University of the South
Australia: Charles Darwin University
Brazil: Universidade Federal do ABC (ABC refers to its location, not the courses offered)
Canada: University of British Columbia
China: University of Science and Technology of China
France: Paris Diderot Univerity: Paris 7
Germany: Ulm University
Ireland: Royal College of Surgeons
Japan: Toyota Technological Institute
Italy: Free University of Bozen-Bolzano
Russia: ITMO University
Turkey: Atilim University
United Kingdom: St George's, University of London.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Waiting for the THE world rankings

The world, having recovered from the shocks of the Shanghai, QS and RUR rankings, now waits for the THE world rankings, especially the research impact indicator measured by field normalised citations.

It might be helpful to show the top 5 universities for this criterion since 2010-11.

1. Caltech
2. MIT
3. Princeton
4. Alexandria University
5. UC Santa Cruz

1. Princeton
2. MIT
3. Caltech
4. UC Santa Barbara
5. Rice University

1. Rice University
2. National Research Nuclear University MePhI
3. MIT
4. UC Santa Cruz
5. Princeton

1. MIT
2. Tokyo Metropolitan University
3. Rice University
4. UC Santa Cruz
5. Caltech

1. MIT
2. UC Santa Cruz
3. Tokyo Metropolitan University
4. Rice University
5. Caltech

1. St George's, University of London
2. Stanford University
3. UC Santa Cruz
4  Caltech
5. Harvard

Notice that no university has been in the top five for citations in every year.

Last year THE introduced some changes to this indicator, one of which was to exclude papers with more than 1000 authors from the citation count. This, along with a dilution of the regional modification that gave a bonus to universities in low scoring countries, had a devastating effect on some universities in France, Korea, Japan, Morocco, Chile and Turkey.

The citations indicator has always been an embarrassment to THE, throwing up a number of improbable front runners aka previously undiscovered pockets of excellence. Last year they introduced some reforms but not enough. It would be a good idea for THE to get rid of the regional modification altogether, to introduce full scale fractional counting, to reduce the weighting assigned to citations, to exclude self-citations and secondary affiliations and to include more than one measure of research impact and research quality.

Excluding the papers, mainly in particle physics, with 1,000 plus "authors" meant avoiding the bizarre situation where a contributor to a single paper with 2,000 authors and 2,000 citations would get the same credit as 1,000 authors writing a thousand papers each of which had been cited twice.

But this measure also  meant that some of the most significant scientific activity of the century would not be counted in the rankings. The best solution would have been fractional counting, distributing the citations among all of the institutions or contributors, and in fact THE did this for their pilot African rankings at the University of Johannesburg.

Now, THE have announced a change for this year's rankings. According to their data chief Duncan Ross.

" Last year we excluded a small number of papers with more than 1,000 authors. I won’t rehearse the arguments for their exclusion here, but we said at the time that we would try to identify a way to re-include them that would prevent the distorting effect that they had on the overall metric for a few universities.

This year they are included – although they will be treated differently from other papers. Every university with researchers who author a kilo-author paper will receive at least 5 per cent credit for the paper – rising proportionally to the number of authors that the university has.
This is the first time that we have used a proportional measure in our citations score, and we will be monitoring it with interest.

We’re also pleased that this year the calculation of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings has been subject to independent audit by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). "
This could have perverse consequences. If an institution has one contributor to a 1,000 author paper with 2,000 citations then that author will get 2,000 citations for the university. But if there are 1001 authors then he or she would get only 50 citations.

It is possible that we will see a cluster of papers with 998, 999, 1000 authors as institutions remove their researchers from the author lists or project leaders start capping the number of contributors.

This could be a way  of finding out if research intensive universities really do care about the THE rankings.

Similarly, QS now excludes papers with more than ten contributing institutions. If researchers are concerned about the QS rankings they will ensure that the number of institutions does not go above ten. Let's see if we start getting large numbers of papers with ten institutions but none or few with 11, 12 13 etc.

I am wondering why THE would bother introducing this relatively small change. Wouldn't it make more sense to introduce a lot of small changes all at once and get the resulting volatility over and done with?

I wonder if this has something to do with the THE world academic summit being held at Berkeley on 26-28 September in cooperation with UC Berkeley. Last year Berkeley fell from 8th to 13th in the THE world rankings. Since it is a contributor to several multi-contributor papers it is possible that the partial re-inclusion of hyper-papers will help the university back into the top ten.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The THE reputation rankings: Much ado about not very much

Every so often, especially in North America and Western Europe, there is a panic about the impact of government policies on higher education, usually the failure to provide as much money as universities want, or sometimes as many overseas students as they need to fill lecture halls or cover budget deficits. Global university rankings have a lot to do with the onset and spread of these panics.

True to form, the British  "quality" media have been getting into a tizzy over the latest edition of the Times Higher Education (THE) world reputation ranking. According to Javier Espinoza, education editor of the Telegraph, top UK universities have been under pressure to admit minority and state school students and have also had difficulty in recruiting foreign students. This has somehow caused them to forget about doing research or teaching the most able students. It seems that academics from countries around the world, where such problems are of course unknown, are reacting by withholding their votes from British universities when responding to the THE survey and transferring their approval to the rising stars of Asia.

This supposedly has caused UK institutions to slide down the rankings and two of them, Bristol and Durham, have even dropped out of the top 100 altogether into the great dark pit of the unranked.

The Guardian notes that Oxford and Cambridge are falling and are now only just in the world's top five while the Independent quotes Phil Baty, as saying that "our evidence - from six massive global surveys over six years, including the views of more than 80,000 scholars - proves the balance of power in higher education and research is slowly shifting from the West to the East". 

This, it would seem, is all because of cuts in funding and restrictions on the entry of overseas students and faculty.

All this is is rather implausible. First of all, these are reputation rankings. They refer only to one indicator that accounts for 33 percent of the World University Rankings that will appear later this year. It is not certain that the other indicators will go in the same direction.

Secondly, these rankings have not been standardised as they will be when included in the world rankings, which means that the huge gap between the Big Six, Harvard -- MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge -- and the rest is laid bare, as it will not be in the autumn, and so we can get a rough idea of how many academics were voting for each university. A crude guess is that when we get down to around 50th place the number of votes will be around five hundred and even less when we reach 100th place.

This means that below the 50 mark a shift in the opinion of a few dozen respondents could easily push a university up or down into a new band or even into or out of the top 100.

Another thing we should remember is that the expertise of the researchers in the Scopus database, from which respondents are drawn, is  exaggerated. The qualification for receiving a survey form is being the corresponding author of a publication listed in the Scopus database. There is much anecdotal evidence that in some places winning research grants or getting the corresponding author slot has more to do with politics than with merit. The THE survey is better than QS's, which allows anyone with an academic email address to take part, but it does not guarantee that every respondent is an unbiased and senior researcher.

We should also note that, unlike the US News and QS survey indicators, THE takes no measures to damp down year to year fluctuations. Nor does it do anything to prevent academics from supporting their own universities in the survey.

So, do we really need to get excited about a few dozen "senior researchers" withdrawing their support from British universities?

The credibility of these rankings is further undermined by apparent changes in the distribution of responses by subject group. According to the methodology page in Times Higher Education for 2015, 16% of the responses were from the arts and humanities and 19% were from the social sciences, which in that year included business studies and economics. This year, according to the THE methodology page, 9% of the responses were from the arts and humanities and 15 % were from the social sciences and 13 % were from business and economics, adding up to 28%.

In other words the responses from the arts and humanities have apparently fallen by 7 percentage points, or around 700 responses, and the combined responses from social sciences and business and economics have apparently risen by nine points, or about 900 responses.

If these numbers are accurate then there has been among survey respondents a very substantial shift from the arts and humanities to the social sciences (inclusive of business and economics) and it is possible that this could be sufficient to cause the recorded decline in the reputation scores of British universities which usually do much better  in the arts and humanities than in the social sciences.

In the THE subject group rankings last year, Durham, for example, was 28th for arts and humanities in the THE 2015-16 World University Rankings and 36th for the social sciences. Exeter was 71st for arts and humanities and 81st for the social sciences.

At the same time some of those rising  Asian universities were definitely  stronger in the social sciences than in the humanities: Peking was 52nd for social sciences and 84th for arts and humanities, Hong Kong 39th for social sciences and 44th for arts and humanities, Nanyang Technological University 95th for social sciences and outside the top 100 universities for the arts and humanities.

It is possible that such a symmetrical change could be the result of changes in the way disciplines are classified or even a simple transposition of data. So far, THE have given no indication that this was the case.

It is interesting that an exception to to the narrative of British decline is the London Business School which has risen from the 91-100 band to 81-90.

The general claim that the views of 80,000 academics over six years are evidence of a shift from west to east is also somewhat tenuous. There have been several changes in the collection and organisation of data over the last few years that could affect the outcomes of the reputation  survey.

Between 2010-2011 and 2016 the percentage of responses from the social sciences (originally including  business and economics) has risen from 19% to 28 % for social sciences plus business and economics counted separately. Those for clinical and health sciences and life sciences  have fallen somewhat while there has been a slight rise for the arts and humanities, with a large spike in 2015.

The number of responses from the Asia Pacific region and the Middle East has has risen from 25% to 36% while those from the Americas (North and Latin) have  fallen from 44% to 25%. The number of languages in which the survey is administered has increased from eight in 2011 to fifteen this year.

The source of respondents has shifted from the Thomson Reuters Web of Science to Scopus, which includes more publications from languages other than English.

The value of these changes is not disputed here but they should make everybody very cautious about using the reputation rankings to make large claims about what is happening to British universities or what the causes of their problems are.