UK: US universities top the charts - again

Daily newspapers in cities around the world were celebrating, or deploring, the status of their universities on Friday with publication of the latest rankings by the Times Higher Education and British publisher QS World Rankings. Reactions from vice-chancellors outside the US, whose universities again dominated the charts, were much the same: how can we compete against America's hugely wealthy Ivy League institutions when our universities are under-funded?

As UK vice-chancellors pointed out, Harvard was ranked number one for the fifth year in a row yet it charges undergraduates £18,662 a year in tuition fees while English and Northern Ireland universities are capped at £3,145.

US universities took out six of the top 10 places in the rankings, with Harvard and Yale first and second, but with Cambridge and Oxford down on last year's result at third and fourth spot respectively. Imperial College and University College London also dropped back to sixth and seventh places behind CalTech but in front of Chicago, MIT and Columbia.

As is the case with the THE-QS rankings, surprising movements occur with individual institutions from one year to the next. The University of Michigan, for instance, jumped from 38th to 18th place in a year, Cornell from 20th to 15th and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology from 42nd to 24th.

Canada's McGill, on the other hand, fell from 12th to 20th, Hong Kong from 18th to 26th , the LSE from 59th to 66th while Leeds dropped out of the top 100 after plummeting from 80th last year to 104 in 2008.

Australia did better than the other small nations, and much better than China or Japan, with six of its 40 universities in the top 100 and one in the top 20: the Australian National University again scored 16th place. Sydney and Melbourne, however, both fell back several places while Adelaide, ranked 62nd last year, dropped out and was placed at 106.

The publishers say the overall rankings are compiled using six distinct indicators:

*Academic peer review - a composite score based on responses from more than 6,350 academics in five subject areas - which is given a 40% weighting.
* Employer review - based on responses from 2,340 employers - with a weighting of 10%.
* Faculty-student ratio which contributes 20% to the final score.
* International factors count for a total of 10% and depend on the proportion of international academics and students among a university's staffing and student body.
* Citations per faculty - a score based on the number of cited papers published by a university. The publishers say the total citation count is factored against the number of faculty to take into account the size of the institution. This counts for 20%.

The THE-QS rankings, however, have been widely criticised for not giving an accurate picture of the true quality of any individual university. Yet many vice-chancellors seize on them to promote themselves to students and academics.

Writing in University World News last November, Melbourne University professor of education Simon Marginson said:

"Rankings function as a meta-performance indicator. They do more than 'reflect' a university's profile and quality. The criteria used to determine a university's position in the ranking system become meta-outputs that every university is duty bound to place on priority. Rankings begin to define what quality means and, by shaping university and system behaviours, they begin to shape university mission and the balance of activity.

"In the world according to Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings, higher education is about scientific research and Nobel Prizes. It is not teaching or community building or solutions to local or global problems.

"In the world according to the THES, higher education is primarily about building reputation as an end in itself, and about international marketing, because it is these metrics that drive the index. It is not about teaching, and not so much about research and scholarship which are only 20% of the THES index.

"Rankings as a meta-performance indicator have the potential to redefine and reify the core purposes of universities. They shape patterns of activity and priorities for development, as shown by the history of the US News rankings in the United States. They cut deeply into the authority of universities over mission and identity."
See www.timeshighereducation.co.uk