How Effective Are University Rankings?

April 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

The European Commissioner for Science and Research, Januz Potocnik, recently blogged (H/T ScienceInsider) about a workshop focused on measuring and comparing universities.  The Commission has an Expert Group focused on assessing university research and recently released an interim report on the use of rankings to assess university based research.  While acknowledging some honest disagreement over whether such rankings are useful, the group did note that the current methodologies behind rankings like the Times QS World could use improvement.

What I found particularly interesting was Commissioner Potocnik’s idea that more coherent university rankings could stimulate the funding of university research.

Rankings, which have been shown to influence the behaviour of universities and promote strategic thinking and planning, could help universities to develop better management practices and thus attract potential external funders. This is in the end what we are trying to do – secure the future for research activities in universities which will benefit our societies for a long time to come…

While the notion is encouraging, I’m reminded of how universities (at least in the U.S.) have set goals like aiming for the top 30 on a particular ranking or to boost their position in a magazine’s list.  These efforts often seem focused on the output – the numerical ranking – rather than desired outcomes like increased research funding and quality.  While by no means perfect (and certainly more expensive), the more involved United Kingdom university ratings seem a better means of acheiving these desired outcomes.

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