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Global university rankings

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The European University Association (EUA) recently released a report they'd commissioned entitled Global University Rankings and Their Impact. The report was written by Andrejs Rauhvargers.

According to the EAU, one of their major motivations in commissioning the report was that their member universities are "often under pressure to appear in the rankings, or to improve their position in one way or another."

Some of the report's findings include the following:

-- Shanghai Jiao Tong University published the first "global university ranking" in 2003. Just eight years later, there are now more than a dozen such rankings.

-- International rankings typically include between 200 and 500 universities, meaning that they only cover between 1% and 3% of the world's 17,000 universities.

-- Most of the rankings "focus predominantly" on research, as opposed to teaching. Likewise, "the importance of links to external stakeholders and environments" is "largely ignored."

-- "Bibliometric indicators" are often used as a gauge for measuring research outcomes. The report argues that this advantages the natural sciences and medicine and disadvantages social sciences and humanities. Likewise, these indicators tend to disadvantage the publication of books and anthologies.

-- The report finds that the indicators advantage English-language universities, as "non-English language work is both published and cited less."

-- The rankings disadvantage universities with specialized mandates, such as those that serve a specific region or that strive to be accessible to older students.

-- The report finds that, "[i]n an attempt to improve their positions in the rankings, universities are strongly tempted to improve their performance specifically in those areas which are measured by ranking indicators."

-- Sometimes universities manipulate data in order to improve their standing (e.g., by merging with other universities and by manipulating student-staff ratios).

I'm not opposed to universities being held accountable to outside bodies. Nor am I opposed to the use of measured outcomes. But given that higher education is about so much more than research, wouldn't it by wise to arrive at the methodology through a consultative process that includes student federations, labour groups and faculty associations? And wouldn't it be good if outcomes included teaching quality, knowledge translation, community engagement and accessibility to vulnerable groups?

I would like to see one of Ontario's political parties adopt just such a proposal in their platform for this October's provincial election campaign. The party in question could propose to spearhead a process that would aim to hold all Ontario universities accountable on outcomes that are agreed upon with key stakeholders, including the Canadian Federation of Students, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Council of Ontario Universities.

Ontario should set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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