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26.06.2013 - Education Sector

University rankings are here to stay – so how can we improve them?

Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Interview: Prof. Nian Cai LIU, professor , Shanghai Jiaotong University, who led the first-ever global university rankings report, Academic Ranking of World Universities. Published in 2003, it is widely regarded today as one of the world’s most influential university rankings.

“The Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses” will be launched on 28 June at UNESCO. You led the first-ever global university rankings report, Academic Ranking of World Universities that is now 10 years old. How do you see the effects of the rankings system?

University rankings help society and different stakeholders better understand universities, by providing transparent results obtained through analysis of comparable information about universities. Students and parents could use them to narrow their range of options among the great number of universities and disciplines. Employers could use them as information for recruitment. At the governance level, the rankings could be considered as a component of the higher education quality assurance system and provide a reference for decision making in the allocation of public resources. For universities, they provide a competitive benchmark for catching up with and overtaking competitors. They could serve for investors and the public as evidence of effort and performances realised by those in the list.  

The ranking issues are largely disputed. What do you think of them in general?

University rankings have become one of the hottest, and most contentious, issues in the international higher education sector. Its impact on national higher education delivery is increasingly important. It is a very useful tool for education quality assurance and improvement. Now the question is not whether it should exist, but how to look at rankings in an objective way, how to promote a healthy development of the rankings, and how to help people use these rankings correctly and effectively.      

How could university ranking systems account for factors such as countries that are not doing research in English? How could they acknowledge expertise in the social and human sciences, which is difficult to quantify? What about local context, such as cultural differences?   

None of the rankings is perfect; none of the evaluation systems is absolutely foolproof. Limits exist. University rankings merely provide reference information, which should not become a university goal to pursue. All the top universities have own unique educational philosophy, objectives and characteristics.

How could the main ranking houses make improvements in the future?

 “Let a hundred flowers blossom, let a hundred schools of thought contend »: Ranking institutions improve their rankings in the competition. The International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence (IREG) should advocate and promote its audit so as to oblige them to constantly optimize rankings. At the same time, the ranking institutions should actively strengthen research and improve ranking methods.   

What role do you think UNESCO, the UN lead agency in education, could play in the area of university ranking?                

While serving as platform of information and exchange about university rankings for member states, UNESCO could further gather IREG and other professional institutions to elaborate directives for the usage of universities rankings. It would guide ranking institutions in their improvements and encourage stakeholders and users to use properly and effectively the rankings systems.

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