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




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