Beyond the rank and file of university education

By Ray O’Reilly

With students caught between a book and a hard place in these austere times, they are resorting to new ranking tools to help decide where to study.

Harvard and other Ivy League universities dominate global ranings. But is this a sign of Anglophone bias? Photo: Harvard University

Harvard and other Ivy League universities dominate global rankings. But is this a sign of Anglophone bias? Photo: Harvard University

Wednesday 28 May 2014

One of the winners of the economic crisis – if there are really any – has been higher education. With record-high youth unemployment in countries like Spain and Greece, staying on at university seems like the best chance of snagging that elusive entry-level job without having to do a succession of unpaid internships.

Higher education was once a guarantee of a job at the end, but the only sure bet today for many young Europeans is a mountain of student debt to pay off afterwards. Young people are stuck between a book and a hard place: unemployed and under-educated or indebted and over-educated. Many are taking the second option, but not blindly. As digital natives, they know how to shop around for the best deals; a university’s reputation is no longer good enough to lure this choosy customer. And nor should it be.

Yes, the market economy has finally reached the hallowed education sector. Austerity-stricken governments have helped here by making the education system earn its keep. All of this means the education sector is getting a bit scrappy as universities and schools vie for government funding and fee-paying customers. Where they appear on yearly rankings is beginning to matter more than ever.

Comparison-shopping sites

For students, there are tools to help with this important comparison-shopping exercise. Sites like FindTheBest, which has a neat education section, and Niche college comparisons help would-be students weigh up the pros and cons of a university placement in the States. Meanwhile, the official site for comparing higher education course data in UK is Unistats. Other countries no doubt have equivalent resources and a few platforms attempt to prowl the internet to deliver more ‘global’ comparisons.

Some of the comparison tools base their recommendations on information supplied by governments or regional suppliers, such as Eurostat data, and intelligence from the likes of the Eurydice network. The nearest thing to a worldwide ranking comes from the widely recognised Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities.

A quick glance at the top 500 list on the Shanghai Ranking tells you one thing; the system favours large English-speaking universities. Eight of the top ten places go to American universities (Harvard, Stanford and Berkely in the top three) and two places to UK institutions (Cambridge at 5th and Oxford at 10th place). Even the rankings by less language-dominated subjects (maths, physics, chemistry, computer science) are still largely dominated by US universities.

The Times Rankings tell a similar story, with all bar one place (going to ETH Zurich) in the top 20 going to Anglophone universities. Surely there are good universities in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Scandinavians seem to be pretty good at creating successful businesses and new technologies as well. But the nearest any of them come in the ranking for, say, engineering and IT is 23rd (the Delft University of Technology), 26th (the Munich Technical University) and equal 34th (the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, and the Technical University of Denmark). Do these rankings really reflect the quality of the universities holistically or are they overly weighted towards academic publications, usually in English?

Using data from Thomson Reuters worked into 13 performance indicators, the Times Rankings touts itself as “the only global university performance tables to judge world-class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”.

Out with ‘simplistic league tables’

The announcement last month of a new global university ranking called U-Multirank looks set to dog-ear a few priceless books on the shelves of esteemed institutions. This could be good news for students who are looking at the prospects of protracted and expensive education until the economy picks up – especially in Europe.

U-Multirank’s multi-dimensional listings rate universities on a wider range of factors. The idea, according to the team behind the project which received seed funding from the European Union, is to avoid “simplistic league tables” which can result in misleading comparisons between institutions of very different types or mask significant differences in quality between courses at the same university.

The dimensions covered by U-Multirank include teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement. Individual users can build a personalised ranking based on their needs – comparing ‘like with like’ in 30 graded areas, from ‘A’ (very good) to ‘E’ (weak). Several readymade lists have also been front-loaded in the system, for example on research, the strengths of the university’s economic involvement, and business studies programmes.

The inaugural 2014 ranking covers more than 850 higher education institutions, 1,200 faculties and 5,000 study programmes from 70 countries worldwide. It provides an institutional ranking of whole institutions, as well as field-based rankings for electrical and mechanical engineering, business studies and physics. After 2014, the coverage of institutions and fields will be extended, according to the team headed by professors at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the Centre for Higher Education (CHE) in Germany.

The business

Looking at the ‘business studies’ readymade report from U-Multirank, the results have something of an infographic appearance with larger dots in categories, such as ‘graduating on time (masters)’ or students’ opinion of ‘overall learning experience’, representing a higher score (say an ‘A’ or ‘B’). Clearly the report is not a ranking in the strict sense because the school in the first place on the list – WHU School of Management, Germany – does not have a ‘1’ next to it. But the pattern and position of the dots immediately suggests it scored well!

The big question: do Anglophone schools dominate the list of business/economics schools? Not at all. Two of the three strongest schools in this subject are indeed US colleges – though American U Florida and Dartmouth College are not the usual ‘Ivy League’ suspects. But the colleges that seem to show the best results (which just happen to fill the first ten places on this report, but let’s not call it ranking!) are predominately European.

And of those, German schools like WHU, Zeppelin U, EBS University Wiesbaden and Reutlingen UAS stand out. Two French colleges – HEC Paris and ESSEC Business School Cergy – score well and Italy’s U Trento and Poland’s Academy of Business Dąbrowa Górnicza also fare well, especially in the ‘teaching and learning’ results.

Now how about the make-up of schools in the Shanghai Ranking for economics – the nearest obvious equivalent to U-Multirank’s readymade business studies report? No surprises here … all are Anglophone and 18 of the top 20 places go to US institutions, with the remaining two places filled by the London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Cambridge.

So the new kid on the block seems to offer something more than the rank and file comparison test. It would be good to know how the tailored comparisons – the ‘like with like’ – work in real scenarios. Let The Chronikler know if you found them useful!