Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, publisher of the QS World University Rankings, has defended the use of quality marks granted to universities that have paid to go through an audit process.
Universities apply to be audited and pay for a process that judges them across 51 criteria that can lead to the awarding of up to five QS 'stars' that are visible against the institution’s entry in the ranking.
In contrast with the rankings, which draw on a small amount of globally available, largely public data, the QS stars system examines criteria such as facilities, access, engagement and innovation.
The stars appear seamlessly alongside the listing for each university on the World University Rankings, despite protestations from QS that the two are totally separate operations.
The UK magazine Private Eye reported in its current issue that two Irish universities – the University of Limerick and University College Cork, UCC – had paid “tens of thousands” of euro for their stars.
The magazine recorded that UCC had told the Irish Examiner that the €22,000 (US$26,600) cost of obtaining the stars was worthwhile, as it could be recouped through additional international student recruitment.
The total cost for the audit and a three-year licence is US$30,400, according to the scheme prospectus.
QS says the system is much more resource-intensive than the rankings and involves a great deal of guidance and support to draw out the correct data, compute the results and guide their interpretation.
QS concedes that some elite universities – Cambridge and Harvard among them – have not had to pay for the accreditation process for their five-star rating as their award is based on publicly available information.
Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, confirmed that “a few leading universities we used to test the measures” had not had to go through the accreditation process.
Private Eye reported that the University of Central Lancashire, which secured four stars after paying to go through the process, was ranked 601 in its World University Rankings.
Three other UK universities have been given stars, compared with 16 in the US (including the Ivy League institutions that escaped the accreditation process), 12 in Australia, and one – the Al-Farabi National Kazakh University – in Kazakhstan.
Sowter told University World News that the rankings gave a “broad brush insight into relative quality” but QS Stars “provides a more in-depth evaluation”.
He added: “Our concept for users is that, if they want more detail on universities in the rankings, then the stars, where available can provide that."
He conceded that rankings – not just those compiled by QS – had limitations.
“There are aspects of institutional quality that no organisation will ever be able to collect on a sufficiently comprehensive basis globally and in many cases the world’s top universities would all be sufficiently strong so as to offer little discernment.
“Because of the nature of QS Stars, the fact that it is a process we go through with the full support of the institution...means that we can respond to a great deal of criticism of rankings in a different context.”
Sowter accepted that not all the information on which the allocation of stars was based was published.
“QS stars are a rating and not a ranking...This is not intended to be a dismissal of the need for transparency, but at the same time the detailed view on accreditation results are rarely, if at all, made public.
“However, we do publish the performance of institutions in each individual category and we are talking with institutions about potentially publishing a richer data profile."
The 51 indicators can be seen both in the brochure and here.
“Many are self-reported and undergo a verification process, which is a major part of the workload that each audit demands,” said Sowter.
The QS World University Rankings lists just over 700 universities – about 3.5% of the world’s universities.
Sowter said: “In global terms, viewing the quality of world universities through a frame of reference defined by the likes of Cambridge and Harvard has limitations.
“With universities all over the world charging substantial fees to international students, an objective means of differentiating between the quality of the services they provide is indispensable. QS Stars allow students to make more informed choices, while also helping universities to recruit more effectively by providing independent verification of the areas in which they excel.”
To date, more than 100 institutions in 25 countries have adopted the stars and one-star and even zero-star results have been recorded.
“This is not a standard that is geared to enable everyone in the world to achieve top scores that are not justified by their genuine capabilities," Sowter said.
"It is designed to recognise that, for most, there is more to the decision of selecting a university than finding out who published the most journal articles, employed the most Nobel prize winners or attracted the most headlines."
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