The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) was released earlier this month. According to the summary in University World News, United States universities took “...16 places in the top 20, 52 in the top 100 and 146 in the top 500.”
Eight of the top 10 were U.S. universities: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, Caltech, Columbia and Chicago (by order). The United Kingdom took the other two slots with Cambridge at 5 and Oxford at 9.
The ARWU was established over a decade ago by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003. They rank over 1,250 universities worldwide and also break down rankings by five broad subject fields. U.S. universities dominate them all—for now. The ARWU uses a variety of measures such as the number of professors with publications in high ranking journals. The system is considered “objective” but places heavy emphasis on research.
There are other ranking agencies, including the Times Higher Education World University Rankings that attempt to classify the best 200 higher education institutions in the world. The THE uses 13 performance indicators “covering the full range of university activities–research, knowledge transfer, international outlook and the teaching environment.” Similar to the movie Casablanca, they end up “rounding up the usual suspects”: Harvard, etc.
The Office of Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe conducted a study of how universities worldwide used these rankings and found:
58% of respondents were not happy with their current ranking.
70% want to be in the top 10 % nationally.
71% want to be in the top 25% internationally.
56% have a formal internal mechanism for reviewing their rank order.
Everyone from national leaders to local governors to university presidents want their universities to be in the top ranks and feel inadequate if they aren’t. They direct huge resources toward developing a national and international reputation. But that diverts resources from serving their local region’s needs and teaching their students.
Meanwhile, one country stopped to ask if these rankings are really useful. The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research commissioned a report that the University World News summarized with the headline: “Official study slams university rankings as ‘useless’.” The Norwegian study “...concluded that even the top rankings are so based on subjective weightings of factors and on dubious data that they are useless as a basis for information if the goal is to improve higher education.”
Last year, the European Union launched yet another university ranking system: U-Multirank. UWN reported that “Some 500 universities worldwide are expected to sign up to U-Multirank.” U-Multirank rates universities in five areas: research reputation, quality of teaching and learning, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer (partnerships and start-ups), and contribution to regional growth.
And BBC News just reported a study that analyzed top ranked universities and found “money is the key to being a top university.” With over $700,000 in grants per year per professor, a university can buy into the higher ranks.
Students—and in particular foreign students—often ask me if such-and-such university is “highly-ranked.” (Indeed, in China, universities are ranked Level One, Two or Three.) I ask my students what are they studying? I tell them that it is the department or school that matters, not the university. If you want to be an excellent elementary teacher, don’t go to Harvard. Several Kansas schools have undergraduate programs in that area that are much better. Many Research I universities have some terrible undergraduate programs. Undergraduates will rarely if ever see that $700,000-grant professor.
Norway knows that quality education for undergraduate students has little to do with university rankings. So should we.