A new university ranking system, U-Multirank, was officially launched by the European Union (EU) in Dublin on Wednesday, bringing a new and broader approach to the assessment of universities throughout the world.
Some 500 universities worldwide are expected to sign up to U-Multirank, and the first results will be published in early 2014.
U-Multirank will rate universities in five separate areas: reputation for research, quality of teaching and learning, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer – such as partnerships with businesses, and start-ups – and contribution to regional growth.
The aim, said Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for education, is to give students and institutions a clear picture of their performance across a range of important areas.
Until now university rankings have placed “disproportionate” weight on research excellence, she said.
Brussels has proposed a funding allocation of €2 million (US$2.7 million) from the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme in 2013-14, with the possibility of a further two years of seed funding in 2015-16.
The lead partners for U-Multirank are the Centre for Higher Education in Germany and the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies in The Netherlands.
The idea of a university rankings system based on a wider range of performance than hitherto was first broached by the EU in 1998.
The approach was developed on the basis of a feasibility study carried out in coordination with 150 higher education institutions from Europe and around the world, which confirmed that “both the concept and implementation of a multi-dimensional ranking was realistic”, said the European Commission.
There had been unease in some countries that the ‘traditional’ rankings systems gave unfair prominence to wealthier, research-oriented institutions.
But the idea of broadening the criteria did not find universal favour. Many academics are opposed in principle to the idea of ranking universities in a table. Others have said there are already too many ranking systems. The UK’s House of Lords’ EU committee called the initiative a waste of money.
Vassiliou said this week that universities were one of Europe's most successful inventions, “but we need to think and act more strategically to realise the full potential of our universities”.
U-Multirank would help students to choose the university or college that was best for them, and enable universities to identify their strengths or weaknesses and learn from one another's experience. “Finally, it will give policy-makers a more complete view of their higher education systems so that they can strengthen their country's performance as a whole."
The European Students' Union (ESU) said U-Multirank would be “a very important tool”.
But while it had the potential to become relevant for students, enabling them to make informed decisions by promoting the diversity of the European Higher Education Area, it could also contribute to the marketisation and commodification of higher education, which the ESU strongly opposed.
Recent studies had shown that a majority of the world’s universities were “left out of the equation” in traditional rankings systems, because rankings had adopted methodologies that only addressed the top research universities globally.
This would be avoided by the multidimensional approach adopted by Brussels, it said.
"Community engagement and social contributions of universities should be added; research findings which solved real world problems."
Helen Sophia Chua on University World News'
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