EUROPE: New ranking scheme for universities

The European Union is planning to launch its own international higher education rankings, with emphasis on helping students make informed choices about where to study and encouraging their mobility. Odile Quintin, the European Commission's Director-General of Education and Culture, announced she would call for proposals before the end of the year, with the first classification appearing in 2010.

A European classification would probably be compiled along the same lines as the German Centre for Higher Education Development Excellence Ranking. Last September, Ján Figel, a member of the European Commission responsible for education, training, culture and youth, gave official support for the CHE project and its aims to develop "tools to produce multi-dimensional rankings based on robust, relevant and widely accepted methodologies".

Figel had said the main interest of the commission was to "help member states and their institutions improve the quality of their education and training systems and in particular to make it easier for students to make an informed choice on where and what to study, by offering accessible, transparent and comparable information".

"The commission is of the opinion that many existing rankings do not really fulfil this purpose, for example because they focus on research aspects rather than teaching, and on entire institutions rather than programmes and departments," he said.

"In order to achieve a mapping of European higher education that provides guidance and transparency, we need ranking tools that take into account the existing diversity in terms of languages, subject areas, profiles, student services, research and teaching quality. CHE is among the projects which are giving an important contribution towards this objective."

Valérie Pécresse, French Minister for Higher Education and Research, has made a priority of the creation of a new European rankings system as an alternative to those such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong version. The selection criteria of existing rankings are regarded as favouring 'Anglo-Saxon' higher education institutions to the detriment of French and other European universities.

Critics say current rankings give too much weight to criteria that include institutional size: universities in the US and other highly ranked countries tend to be bigger than those in Europe while the emphasis is also on the role of research. Similarly, there is a greater emphasis on the number of Nobel and Fields medal winners while neglecting the quality of teaching.

In the latest Jiao Tong rankings, 17 US universities were placed in the first 20 and 55 in the top 100. Britain, the next highest scoring country, had two universities in the leading 20 and 10 in the top 100 - yet the whole of continental Europe managed only 23 in the first 100.

As the European Commission prepares to relaunch the student mobility programme Erasmus, Pécresse held a conference in Paris, under France's European Union presidency, titled International comparisons of education systems: a European model?

Erasmus was a "magnificent success", said Pécresse, but it needed a second wind. Calling for a 'Brussels ranking' of world and European universities, she said: "If we want to give a new impetus to Erasmus, and more generally to student mobility in Europe, we must... offer students proper information on courses available in Europe so they can choose a country in which to study, certainly, but also choose their university and course."

Pécresse said existing rankings unquestionably had faults by neglecting objective indicators so the true performance of universities was often missed. Rankings which presented a hierarchy of establishments were "largely useless for students; they do not give sufficiently precise information", she said.

Students needed to know the quality of teaching in the subject that concerned them. A European university ranking should be "a tool in the service of students, guiding them through the courses on offer in Europe so they can choose on the basis of objective information calibrated according to their individual needs".

Director-General Quintin told the Erasmus conference the commission would shortly call for proposals for an "independent, multidimensional and international rankings system which should be available in 2010".