Sunday, May 30, 2010

From Brazil

There is an interview in Portuguese with Phil Baty of the THE World University Rankings here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reactions to the Asian Rankings

Last Sunday the Malaysian New Straits Times published an article by Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). This particular university has generated considerable publicity by refusing to cooperate with QS, the organisers of the now defunct THE-QS rankings and the Asian University Rankings. Prof. Dzulkifli said of the latest edition of the 2010 rankings:

"FIVE Malaysian universities were ranked among the top institutions in the 2010 QS Asian University Rankings.

While some cheered and reckoned this is deservedly so -- considering the hard work -- others felt it is about time.

At Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), however, most were amused by the news for the simple reason that they have neither agreed to the invitation to participate nor have they submitted any data or information.

Nevertheless, USM has been assigned a meaningless "number".

Early in the year, the university took a firm stand on not participating in the newly minted QS, and officially notified the company of its intention.

As they made no response, it was assumed that the message was well understood. The silence adds to the conviction that the rankings exercise is suspect at best. "

USM's decision is especially significant since it has been awarded APEX status, with various privileges and enhanced autonomy, with the express purpose of becoming a world class university as measured by a high place in the rankings.

The refusal to participate is entirely understandable. The errors and shortcomings of QS products have been catalogued extensively in this blog and other sources. However, a boycott of the rankings does not mean very much. Most of the information used by QS is easily available from third party sources. In any case, USM's stance did not do it any harm. It ended up in the same position in the current Asian rankings as it did last year although with a larger number of points (average scores for all universities were much higher this year largely because of all those international exchange students rushing backwards and forwards.)

It is also surprising that a Malaysian university should find the QS rankings objectionable. After all, Malaysian and Southeast Asian universities in general have always done much better in QS rankings, thanks to a survey based on the mailing lists of a Singapore based company than in the the Shanghai, Scimargo or Webometrics rankings. It is not clear whether USM's stance is against rankings in general or just those produced by QS.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Discussion in the Straits Times

Two weeks ago the Singapore Straits Times included an article by Phil Baty of Times Higher education in which he explained why THE had "torn up" its annual rankings.

"Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the old rankings was the so-called 'peer review' score. Some 40 per cent of a university's overall ranking score was based on this 'peer review' - in effect, a simple opinion survey, asking university staff which institutions they rated most highly.

Our former data provider, QS, achieved only a very small number of responses to this survey. Last year, around 3,500 people responded. Figures for individual countries were shocking. In 2008, just 563 responses from Britain were received, and just 180 responses from Malaysia. Most shockingly, only 116 responses were collected from China's many, many thousands of scholars in 2008. "

He then refers to the extreme volatility of the rankings:

"The University of Malaya in Malaysia, for instance, plummeted from 89th place in 2004 to joint 169th in 2005, before dropping out of the top 200 altogether later. Between 2008 and last year, Keio University in Japan moved up an amazing 72 places to 142. Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea jumped 54 places to 134."

Pohang did rise because of a marked improvement in the peer review but Keio's rise was because it did better on the student faculty ratio indicator. The fall of Universiti Malaya was because ethnic minorities were counted as international students and faculty in 2004 but not, after a "clarification of data" in 2005.

He then describes some features of the new THE reputational survey and concludes:

"So much rests on the results of our rankings: individual university reputations, student recruitment, vice-chancellors' and presidents' jobs sometimes, and major government investment decisions. We have a duty to overhaul the rankings to make them fit for such purposes. "

Two days ago there was a reply by Nunzio Quacquarelli of QS. He argued:

"The numbers of respondents to the QS academic peer review, quoted by Mr Baty, are misleading.

Our 2009 rankings were based upon 9,386 respondents, not 3,500 as quoted. QS received statistically significant numbers of academic respondents from all major Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, and 222 in Singapore. "

Some clarification is in order. Quacquarelli is correct in noting that the 2009 world rankings were based on 9,386 respondents. But it should be pointed out that about two thirds of those were respondents who had filled out the survey forms in 2008 and 2007 and had been given the opportunity to update their responses. If there was no updating then the old responses were included. Thus it is not impossible that some respondents had by 2009 retired, lost interest, moved or even died.

He then quotes from noted statistician Paul Thurman to claim that the academic opinion survey was valid.

Quacquarelli has a point in that it is not numbers alone that contribute to validity. However, it is hard to accept that a survey with more respondents from Ireland than from Russia and more from Hong Kong than from Japan can be regarded as a valid representation of global academic opinion.

Then there is an unconvincing assertion that THE had consistently endorsed the THE-QS rankings. This in fact refers to the time when John O'Leary and Martin Ince, now with QS, were editor and deputy editor of THE. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

It still remains to be seen whether the new THE survey will be better than QS's. It asks more questions and more detailed ones and has been distributed in several languages but the question of representativeness still remains. Thomson Reuters appear to be satisfied with the number of responses they have received but have not said how many there were or how they were distributed. I have a subjective impression that Southeast Asia and other regions may be underrepresented this time. I would, however, welcome detailed information from Thomson Reuters that would prove me wrong.
Another Rating System

The latest edition of University World News features an interview, by Vojana Sharma, with Morshidi Sirat of Universiti Sains Malaysia who is leading research into a new method of rating universities in developing countries.

"Pilot studies are currently under way in partner universities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines and are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

"We are collaborating with universities in the peripheral regions of these countries, not in the cities. Our aim is to examine to what extent universities in the region can contribute to regional development and serve the needs of their communities," Morshidi told University World News.

"They have their own role to fulfil," he said. "To compare them with universities in a different environment and political system would not be fair." "

The interview continues:

"The five-country pilot studies will review government and regional development targets for poverty alleviation and measure how these have been met by universities.

"Ratings will include measurements on access to universities, educational equity, community engagement and contribution to the environment and regional economy, and how well universities promoted 'human security' including values such as individual freedoms, reducing gender and political discrimination and other non-tangible measures of progress. ""

It sounds like an interesting idea although one wonders how something non-tangible can be measured.

Universiti Sains Malaysia is apparently boycotting the rankings this year. This does not seem to have done them any harm. it was in exactly the same place this year as in 2009 although, aided by a massive increase in the number of inbound exchange students, it scored quite a bit higher.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Governments Should Ignore Rankings

Says Nunzio Quacquarelli of QS Quacquarelli Symonds in an interview in University World News
Asian University Rankings

I have an article in the University World News on the 2010 QS University Rankings.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Waiting for U-Multirank

Phil Baty of Times Higher Education writes from a conference in Sweden:

"Peter van den Besselaar, a professor at the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, said that global rankings had become a "hot topic" - heavily criticised, yet also heavily used - among university managers.

He criticised the Shanghai Jiao Tong world rankings, arguing that existing systems' main weakness was their failure to address the individual missions and goals of the institutions they evaluated. This had "perverse effects", he said, as managers followed "the incentives embedded in the indicators".

Professor van den Besselaar called for a multi-dimensional ranking, with solid indicators relevant to different missions. This is being attempted by the European Commission-funded U-Multirank project, an interactive ranking where institutions are compared with those of the same type and mission via indicators chosen by users. But the project is only at the pilot phase of a feasibility study, and will rank just two subject areas by the end of 2011. "

The point about perverse incentives is a good one although I remain sceptical about those individual missions that cannot possibly be expressed by any indicator in any existing ranking.

A multi-dimesional interactive ranking sounds very nice but if we are still in the pilot stage of a feasibility study then there is not very much to get excited about.

More about the QS Asian University Rankings.

Here are the top 10.

1. University of Hong Kong
2. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
3. National University of Singapore (Up from 1oth place. That needs explaining)
4.Chinese University of Hong kong
5. University of Tokyo (down from 3)
6. Seoul National University
7. Osaka University
8. Kyoto University
9. Tohoku University
10. Nagoya University.

Peking University has fallen out of the top 10 to number 12. Fifteen Korean universities and all seven Indian Institutes of Technology are in the top 100.
QS Asian University Rankings

The QS Asian University Rankings have appeared. Five Malaysian universities are in the top 100. The best performer is Universiti Malaya at No. 42.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Under Pressure

The Guardian reports that some British universities have been putting pressure on students to get them to give good scores in the National Student Survey conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Hefce:

"Eight British universities have been accused of putting undue pressure on students in an attempt to boost their position in crucial national league tables.

Documents released under freedom of information show the universities were reported to the
higher education funding body in the last two years over allegations they tried to persuade students to give their institutions high scores in the National Student Survey.

The 22-question "student experience survey" is critical in determining universities' national rankings and their reputation with students and employers.

The eight universities were
Swansea, Anglia Ruskin (in Cambridge and Chelmsford), Derby, Leicester, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Kingston and London Metropolitan. Documents show they have all been investigated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce)."

Preliminary "Results" from Thomson Reuters

Thomas Reuters have announced what they call preliminary results of the reputational survey of academic researchers that will be one indicator in the forthcoming Times Higher Education international university rankings. The survey closed on May 2nd.

Thomson Reuters have not said how many survey forms were distributed nor how many responses they have received.

They say that they have received "thousands of responses from every corner of the world" and that they have achieved "an excellent breadth of results across six subject areas".

In an article in Forbes, Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters. says

"We're particularly pleased with the number of responses from the Asia Pacific region. As other surveys have been criticized for over-representing North America and Europe, we took particular care to better balance regional representation."

So far there has been nothing that QS, who conducted the much and very justly condemned academic survey for the THE-QS rankings of 2004-2009, have not said. Indeed, QS weighted their survey precisely so that one third of responses were from the Asia Pacific region.

The problem with the old THE-QS survey was that the UK and Australia were overrepresented in comparison with the United States and Japan and that within the three super-regions of the world there were marked variations in the number of reponses from country to country.

Thomson Reuters say that "To help control for language and translation bias, the Academic Reputation Survey was offered in eight languages: Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, European Portuguese and English."

If you going to send out the survey in two kinds of Portuguese, then not sending them in the two languages of the United Nations, Arabic and Russian, seems a little odd.

I am also wondering about about the distribution of the survey. I know of several people who took part in the QS survey last year and before but who, despite reasonable publication records in ISI-indexed journals, did not receive a survey form this time.

Thomson Reuters claim that their survey is superior to that of QS. Perhaps, it is: they have, for a start, made progress by asking questions about teaching. But we need more information than has been released so far to be convinced. It should be quite easy, at least, to release the total number of responses and the total response rate and those for individual countries and regions.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Malaysia and the Rankings

An article by Phil Baty of Times Higher Education in the Malaysia Star repeats earlier comments on the flaws of the old THE-QS World University Rankings:

"I must make a confession: the rankings of the world’s top universities that my magazine has been publishing for the past six years, and which have attracted enormous global attention, are not fit for purpose."

He then continues:

"Those who have used our rankings to cast judgment on the state of Malaysian higher education (and many, in very senior positions have done so) must be told that the annual tables had some serious flaws — flaws which I have a responsibility to put right."

He is absolutely right about the flawed rankings of 2004 - 2009 and about the use of ranking data for political purposes. It is particularly noticeable that any fall by Malaysian universities in the rankings is treated by some writers as the consequence of serious problems in the Malaysian education system. I remember at the end of 2007 receiving a request from a Singaporean newspaper to comment on the latest rankings in which Universiti Malaya (UM) had suffered a serious decline. I replied in detail that it was highly likely that the apparent fall in UM's position was due to changes in methodology and nothing else. This was confirmed a few days later when detailed indicator scores were published showing that UM's fall between 2006 and 2007 was almost entirely the result of the introduction of Z scores which boosted the scores for research for moderately productive research universities like Peking while slightly lifting those for relatively less productive ones like UM. The newspaper article, however, simply asserted that the decline was the result of deficiencies in UM and Malaysian higher education in general.

I do not dispute that Malaysian universities have problems. It is also obvious that in many years they tumbled down the QS rankings. The two just did not have anything to do with each other.

Equally it is true that the quantity of research in Malaysian universities has expanded greatly in recent years and that in some years some Malaysian universities rose. But again these two things were quite unrelated.

In the critique of the old rankings the focus is on the survey of academic opinion, which accounted for 40% of the rankings. Baty points out that a relatively small number of responses were collected from world academics, 563 from the UK, 180 from Malaysia, 201 from the Philippines.

It is true that the old THE-QS rankings collected a small number of responses but size alone is not the crux of the matter. What matters is whether the the sample is an adequate repesentation of the population from which it is drawn. It is arguable that subscribers to World Scientific (THE-QS) are less representative of international academic opinion than published researchers in peer reviewed journals (THE and Thomson Reuters . The actual number is less important. The new rankings will be vindicated not so much by the number of responses received but by how representative and qualified they are.

The article suggests that Malaysian scholars will be able to participate in the ranking than before. I am wondering about that. I know a few people in Malaysia who took part in the 2008 survey but have not received a form this year (perhaps they do not deserve to). It will be interesting to see the exact number of voters from Malaysia and elsewhere when the polls close.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Emerging THE Rankings

Times Higher Education has announced some information about the data that will be collected for their forthcoming rankings.

It is now possible to speculate about what might be included or excluded. First, there has been no mention of an employer review. This is a pity since this was the only input from outside universities in the old THE-QS rankings.

Possible new indicators are number of bachelor's degrees, number of doctoral students admitted, number of doctorates awarded "including those funded by competitive research scholarships", total institutional income, research grant income and research contract income.

It is likely that if any of these are indicators in this year's and subsequent rankings there will be negative backwash effects. It is easy to foresee that diploma and certificate courses will be "upgraded", more and more marginal candidates admitted to doctoral programs and more and more dubious doctorates awarded. It is also likely that every award to a postgraduate student will somehow turn into a competitive research scholarship.

On the other hand data about income and source of income sounds promising since this is something that universities will find difficult to manipulate.

It looks as though student faculty ratio might be maintained as will the proportion of international students and international faculty. The reference to research only staff suggests that only teachers will be counted in the student faculty ratio, a very sensible idea.

As for international students and international faculty, there is a big difference between the two, namely that the former are paid to come to universities but the latter are not. There is surely enough evidence from the UK and Australia that artificial incentives to mass importation of unqualified students does nobody any good.

If THE decides to keep the internationalisation indicators it might be time to stop calling people who more a few miles within the EU international. Similarly, the special dispensation whereby Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong are designated international ought to be abolished.

The new rankings will probably include a research indicator based on citations rather than publications. This makes sense. The impact of research, indicated by the number of times it is cited, is more important than the simple fact of publication. There is, however, a risk that this will allow a further element of gaming into the rankings. Researchers will not only divide papers into the smallest possible unit of publication but will also start doing things like citing themselves copiously and unnecessarily or citing colleagues with whom reciprocal citing arrangements can be established.

The reputational survey (congratulations to THE for not calling it a peer review) appears to be under way. THE and their associates seem determined to avoid the Anglo-Saxon bias of the THE-QS rankings (and perhaps the bias among Anglo-Saxons towards the UK and Australia). It is possible though that new biases may be emerging. The distribution of forms will be based on UN data that could be several years out of date by the time they emerge from national bureaucracies. Taking a sample of opinion from ISI publications, which will reflect research projects that began several years earlier, may create a bias in favour of the traditional elite and against newcomers in the research world such as Iran, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South America.