League tables that rank

University rankings sell a lot of newspapers and magazines. But how seriously should teachers, students and, importantly, policy makers take them? 

While there are many national rankings of higher education institutions, it is the small number of international rankings that attract the greatest media attention. Of these, the annual Academic Ranking of World Universities (known as the “Shanghai ranking”) is arguably the best known, although the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings® also create a stir when they are published each year.

While based on different criteria, all three have at least 15 US research universities in the top 25 and there are five institutions– Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, MIT and Oxford–that appear in the top ten positions in all three. The most heavily weighted factors in each ranking are related to the institution’s research output rather than to how well they teach.

This may be one drawback to watch out for in trying to make a complete assessment. Indeed, the effect of these rankings has been to focus attention on both the “best” universities and how to create and sustain them, rather than on how to improve the quality of higher education more broadly. UNESCO has been sufficiently concerned about this development that it co-organised, along with the OECD and the World Bank, an international Forum on Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education in May 2011.

It is increasingly recognised that research output is not the only, or even the best, measure, and that the other activities in which universities are involved–notably teaching, but also technology transfer and community engagement–matter just as much, if not more, to the quality of the education provided. But as of now, there is no way to measure the quality and impact of these activities comparably.

In the meantime, the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) initiative is showing that graduate learning outcomes can be evaluated. And the European Commission is developing a tool that will enable users to rank institutions according to six aspects, and against a number of indicators, depending on the users’ priorities and preferences.

Visit www.oecd.org/edu/ahelo

See also: 

The Academic Ranking of World Universities

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The QS World University Rankings

The Global Forum on Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, Paris, 16-17 May 2011

©OECD Observer No 287 Q4 2011




Economic data

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
Other

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016