Relaxed in his offices, Nunzio Quacquarelli seems younger than his 46 years. Yet he heads a firm with global reach and more than 100 employees, many of them tucked away unobtrusively in a modern mews building in London's Hampstead, famous for its literati.
Quacquarelli is the founding partner and now Managing Director of Quacquarelli Symonds or QS which launched the annual World University Rankings in 2004 with the then Times Higher Education Supplement, at the time a Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper.
Last year, some 20 million people visited the online 2009 World Rankings tables, seven million to QS's own website and the rest to similar sites, said Quacquarelli. Yet he expresses amazement at the reaction from governments and the universities themselves because the QS rankings were originally set up to serve students and their families.
"What we've been surprised by is the extent to which governments and university leaders use the rankings to set strategic targets. We at QS think this is wrong. Rankings are a relative measure - if other universities do better and move up, you have to go faster. "
"Ranks should not be a primary driver of university mission statements and visions. But ranks can be a useful provider of data. We say universities should look at the data behind the rankings."
He offers no apologies for devising rankings that set much store by the numbers of international student exchanges and international academics, or of international peer recognition - all are still strong factors in the QS rankings.
These can often skew data in unexpected ways such as last year's world rankings that helped put internationally-minded University College London ahead of Oxford, or the rise of Yale which has similarly been concentrating on its international programmes.
The QS measures also account in part for Hong Kong's top three universities and Singapore's strong showing in the latest Asian Rankings top 10, with their international faculties and outlook, among other strong indicators.
"The intention of QS first and foremost is to serve the student consumer," Quacquarelli says. "Rankings allows the consumer to see how institutions stand against other universities."
Manchester-born Quacquarelli, whose father is Italian and his mother Scottish, had the inkling of the QS idea at the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania where he went to study after a degree in economics from Cambridge.
With business partner Matthew Symonds, QS was set up to help internationally-mobile students with their choices and career development. Even now student recruitment fairs around the world dictate the annual calendar at QS.
"When QS started we conducted primary research with guides and events and other solutions for those young people. Primary research is essential: people want to make the right decisions. Where there is an information gap, people want to fill those gaps. "
"As it became apparent that more and more undergraduate students were looking to study abroad, there was a need for an international comparison. We did not come about it from the point of view of an academic exercise with metrics."
That is an important point because criticism of rankings in general, and the original QS-THES World Rankings in particular, centred around the metrics used to devise the tables including citations and peer review.
QS and the THE, as the THES was renamed after it was sold by Murdoch in 2005, parted company without warning last year. Each is now vying with the other to produce a new world ranking with the THE devising a new league table in collaboration with media group Thomson Reuters.
If the split rankles, Quacquarelli does not reveal it. But he is far from bowing out from the rankings business which helped put QS squarely on the map.
In addition to continuing with the QS World Rankings, he has several new league tables being prepared. These include more regional rankings such as the Asian Universities Ranking released last Thursday.
Some preliminary work has been done in Latin America although QS is still some way from releasing a league table for that region.
Critics of the QS-THES ranking methodology, and there are many, have perhaps made Quaquarelli more careful in settling on rankings methodologies and criteria. "The responsibility for planning a league table is great," he admitted.
He has boosted the QS research department to ensure more reliable information. Meanwhile, he reveals he is also considering subject-specific rankings, saying that "consumers want to understand how different subjects perform".
QS is devising its own methodology based on employer review along with bibliometric data and indices for publication, productivity and citation of professors in specialist fields, as a measure of subject excellence and will compare them with other academics within a particular field.
Subject-specific international or regional rankings will also remove some of the pressure when rankings become a de facto measure of a country's higher education system, in the absence of other international benchmarks.
In recognition of the power of rankings to initiate changes in universities, which many countries feel should not be in the hands of a few commercial organisations such as QS or media companies that also publish world university league tables, a number of government-led initiatives have developed.
Most notable is an EU-sponsored project, proposed by the French who were angered by the Anglophone bias of citations measures, to devise and agree on metrics and methodology for a European ranking.
But Quacquarelli says: "Government rankings initiatives suffer the same weaknesses and are similarly naive. Ranking isn't the right way to bring about change in a university system. You need a rating and we encourage universities to look at fixed metrics because that is benchmarking."
Recognising that not all universities, particularly those in developing countries, can be research universities and aspire to compete with the best in the world, QS recently developed a star rating system that uses a broader set of measures, not just research.
They include student employability and teacher quality and could also include knowledge transfer and investment in the community, if ways can be found to quantify these.
Although it is early days for the star ratings, QS is already rating universities in Indonesia, the Philippines and also in the UK and France. As Quacquarelli says, "No one ranking can address all the models of higher education. We are keen to develop different models."
He is undaunted that others may be looking at similar ratings schemes or that regional and other subjects rankings could proliferate. "Different rankings will serve different purposes ," he says.
A student survey-led international ranking of universities is not inconceivable, he observes. And he is not joking: a questionnaire is already being drawn up in a move that promises to redefine the whole rankings industry.
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