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, July 03, 2017

Proving anything you want from rankings

It seems that university rankings can be used to prove almost anything that journalists want to prove.

Ever since the Brexit referendum experts and pundits of various kinds have been muttering about the dread disease that is undermining or about to undermine the research prowess of British universities. The malignity of Brexit is so great that it can send its evil rays back from the future.

Last year, as several British universities tumbled down the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world rankings, the Independent claimed that “[p]ost-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues have seen storm clouds gather over UK higher education in this year’s QS World University Rankings”.

It is difficult to figure out how anxiety about a vote that took place on June 24th 2016 could affect a ranking based on institutional data for 2014 and bibliometric data from the previous five years.

It is just about possible that some academics or employers might have woken up on June 24th to see that their intellectual inferiors had joined the orcs to raze the ivory towers of Baggins University and Bree Poly and then rushed to send a late response to the QS opinion survey. But QS, to their credit, have taken steps to deal with that sort of thing by averaging out survey responses over a period of five years.

European and American universities have been complaining for a long time that they do not get enough money from the state and that their performance in the global rankings is undermined because they do not get enough international students or researchers. That is a bit more plausible. After all, income does account for three separate indicators in the Times Higher Education (THE) world rankings so reduced income would obviously cause universities to fall a bit. The scandal over Trinity College Dublin’s botched rankings data submission showed precisely how much a given increase in reported total income (with research and industry income in a constant proportion) means for the THE world rankings. International metrics account for 10% of the QS rankings and 7.5% of the THE world rankings. Whether a decline in income or the number of international students has a direct effect or indeed any effect at all on research output or the quality of teaching is quite another matter.

The problem with claims like this is that the QS and THE rankings are very blunt instruments that should not be used to make year by year analyses or to influence government or university policy. There have been several changes in methodology, there are fluctuations in the distribution of survey responses by region and subject and the average scores for indicators may go up and down as the number of participants changes. All of these mean that it is very unwise to make extravagant assertions about university quality based on what happens in those rankings.

Before making any claim based on ranking changes it would be a good idea to wait a few years until the impact of any methodological change has passed through the system

Another variation in this genre is the recent claim in the Daily Telegraph that “British universities are slipping down the world rankings, with experts blaming the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students.”

Among the experts is Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham who is reported as saying “universities are no longer free to take their own decisions and recruit the most talented students which would ensure top positions in league tables”.

There is certainly good evidence that British university courses are becoming much less rigorous. Every year reports come in about declining standards everywhere. The latest is the proposal at Oxford to allow students to do take home instead of timed exams.

But it is unlikely that this could show up in the QS or THE rankings. None of the global rankings has a metric that measures the attributes of graduates except perhaps the QS employers survey. It is probable that a decline in the cognitive skills of admitted undergraduate students would eventually trickle up to the qualities of research students and then to the output and quality of research but that is not something that could happen in a single year especially when there is so much noise generated by methodological changes.

The cold reality is that university rankings can tell us some things about universities and how they change over perhaps half a decade and some metrics are better than others but it is an exercise in futility to use overall rankings or indicators subject to methodological tweaking to argue about how political or economic changes are impacting western universities.

The latest improbable claim about rankings is that Oxford’s achieving parity with Cambridge in the THE reputation rankings was the result of  a positive image created by appointing its first female Vice Chancellor.

Phil Baty, THE’s editor, is reported as saying that ‘Oxford University’s move to appoint its first female Vice Chancellor sent a “symbolic” wave around the world which created a positive image for the institution among academics.’

There is a bit of a problem here. Louise Richardson was appointed Vice -Chancellor in January 2016. The polling for the 2016 THE reputation rankings took place between January and March 2016. One would expect that if the appointment of Richardson had any effect on academic opinion at all then it would be in those months. It certainly seems more likely than an impact that was delayed for more than a year. If the appointment did affect the reputation rankings then it was apparently a negative one for Oxford’s score fell massively from 80.4 in 2015 to 69.1 in 2016 (compared to 100 for Harvard in both years). 

So, did Oxford suffer in 2016 because spiteful curmudgeons were infuriated by an upstart intruding into the dreaming spires?

The collapse of Oxford in the 2016 reputation rankings and its slight recovery in 2017 almost certainly had nothing to do with the new Vice-Chancellor.

Take a look at the table below. Oxford’s reputation score tracks the percentage of THE survey responses from the arts and humanities. It goes up when there are more respondents from those subjects and goes down when there are fewer. This is the case for British universities in general and also for Cambridge except for this year.

The general trend since 2011 has been for the gap between Cambridge and Oxford to fall steadily and that trend happened before Oxford acquired a new Vice-Chancellor although it accelerated and finally erased the gap this year.

What is unusual about this year’s reputation ranking is not that Oxford recovered as the number of arts and humanities respondents increased but that Cambridge continued to fall.

I wonder if it has something to do with Cambridge’s “disastrous” performance in the THE research impact (citations) indicator in recent years.  In the 2014-15 world rankings Cambridge was 28th behind places like Federico Santa Maria Technical University and Bogazici University. In 2015-16 it was 27th behind St Petersburg Polytechnic University. But a greater humiliation came in the 2016-17 rankings. Cambridge fell to 31st in the world for research impact. Even worse it was well behind Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school. For research impact Cambridge University wasn’t the best university in Europe or England. It wasn’t even the best in Cambridge, at least if you trusted the sophisticated THE rankings.

Rankings are not entirely worthless and if they did not exist no doubt they would somehow be invented. But it is doing nobody any good to use them to promote the special interests of university bureaucrats and insecure senior academics.

Table: Scores in THE reputation rankings

% responses arts and