HUNGARY: University rankings rejected

Competitive university rankings have been rejected as an effective means of informing people about differing standards in higher education. A conference attended by delegates from European university and standards setting associations in Budapest last week agreed that rankings had "perverse effects".

More than 500 delegates from higher education research and student groups at the 3rd annual International Trends in Quality Assurance conference agreed that developing a competitive system of higher education rather than competitive institutions was a more effective strategy.

Andree Sursock, Deputy General Secretary of the European University Association, one of four bodies that organised the conference, said there was a "general consensus that university rankings had perverse effects".

"Students were particularly vocal in their comments against rankings," Sursock told University World News. "No one has yet really found a way to measure higher education and research with these kinds of instruments and there was agreement that they do not equate with quality assurance. They are part of a globally competitive race and use just a few indicators that do not really chart the complexities of research and education."

Rather than pit universities against each other, delegates at the conference urged institutions to focus on "rethinking diversity and developing a competitive system with a proper mix of institutions with different missions", Sursock added.

Such a system that included institutions dedicated to research, teaching, lifelong learning and other missions would be far more accessible to ordinary people. Many people tended to be confused about how to read league tables and rankings, he said.

Organisations engaged in quality assurance should "acknowledge the information gap" and aspire to providing clear, understandable information that allowed users of higher education to make informed choices, Sursock said. Universities and other higher education institutions should also be clearer in the information they post on websites and not simply rely on third party rankings systems.

"Many members of the public do not understand the methodology behind ranking systems; high scorers like Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard might be good for some students but not necessarily for all," he said, adding that better information could help prospective students make better choices.

"We need to develop a system of diversity in order to allow people to make choices and to enable them to understand that there should be parity of esteem between institutions."

Supported by the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission and co-organised by the E4 group that includes the EUA and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, the European Students Union and the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education, the conference also looked at learning outcomes and the intentional - and unintentional consequences - of quality assurance in higher education.