EUROPE: EUA president promises rankings review

University rankings can sometimes be confusing and should not be the basis for devising policy because universities are confronted with rankings every day, said Jean-Marc Rapp, President of the European University Association. Speaking at the association's spring meeting in Brussels at the end of January, Rapp said rankings were volatile and he promised an annual review as a service for the EUA's 850 institutional members.

Speaking to University World News in Brussels, Rapp said a review would make rankings less intimidating. "After all, we do believe in evidence-based policy for universities which are autonomous and independent."

He said the review would underline the fact that the methods underpinning rankings could shift from year to year. If closer attention was paid to these changes and they were identified, more observers would recognise them for what they were - and not necessarily dramatic lurches in an institution's standards.

Rapp said some apparent eccentricities in any ranking tables should be met head on, rather than damning the ranking systems themselves. There were always going to be elements in institutional surveys which were not scientifically measurable.

The review aims to provide universities with transparent information about rankings, evaluating their methodologies and, Rapp says, suggesting improvements. The first such review will be published next year and will be the feature of an EUA annual rankings seminar.

The project has to be seen in the context of a European Commission initiative to develop a multi-dimensional ranking system for EU institutions, and in the knowledge the OECD is also working on a project to assess learning on an international basis.

"It's absolutely crucial we make sure that the university voice is heard in the rankings and classification debate," Rapp said. "This EUA review will be a vital project in achieving this goal."

The former Rector of Lausanne University in Switzerland is a familiar and approachable figure in educational circles, having been the EUA's vice-president before election to his present post last March.

Rapp is a lawyer who has practised in Lausanne and San Francisco, and also worked as an adviser on financial information and contract law with the commission. He was commendably brief at the welcoming reception where he praised "the partnership method, plus the Bologna process".

"I hope this will be as successful in the future as it has been in the past," he told delegates, adding he was optimistic it would be. His cheerfulness suggests a new, perhaps greater intensity of dealings between the university world and that of the EU institutions - a change of mood signalled by the commission's revived focus on research and innovation.

But first, Rapp admits, he will have to do the rounds in making himself known to the new European commissioners relevant to higher education and research, who take up office this month.

He hopes to see commission President José Manuel Barroso and, of course, Antonio Tajani, industry commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, education commissioner and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn who is responsible for research, innovation and science. It is the first such commission portfolio in the EU's history, so expectations are high.

"I shall also visit Jerzy Buzek, the European Parliament President, who has expressed frequent interest in higher education and is keen to keep research at the top of his agenda," Rapp said, adding that he would schedule talks with all the EP committee members who were involved in tertiary education questions.

Rapp may be pushing against an open door given the consensus across the EU institutions about the need to work closely with member states in joint programmes and embracing the private sector more closely to make education and research a primary weapon for economies fighting their way out of the recession.

At the meeting, delegates were given their first sight of a new document, prepared by Dr. Sybille Reichert for the association, titled Institutional Diversity in European Higher Education: Tensions and challenges for policy makers and institutional leaders.

Its 18 months of research compares institutional diversity in five different systems: the UK, France, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland, and attempts to identify diversification or convergence at both the system and institutional level.

The study was introduced by EUA Secretary General Lesley Wilson whom Rapp says he keeps within earshot - "just in case I make an error," he joked.

Wilson writes in the foreword to the report, "The study challenges accepted ideas about elite and access to higher education. In a sense, higher education seems to have difficulties with the idea, definition and support of social elites. It's caught in the tension between the need to widen and broaden access and the requirement of some elite forms of provision."

As for autonomy, an issue where Rapp says there has to be great emphasis, the study finds that funding is even more important.

"Assumptions that increased autonomy, market forces and inter-institutional competition will increase institutional diversity are simplistic," Wilson concludes.

Autonomy was the subject of another EUA survey circulating at the conference - a follow-up from the association's Prague Declaration of 2009 in which the association declaimed the crucial role of autonomy in the success of European universities during the next 10 years.

It is certainly an issue Rapp will take up with the EU's institutions, not least because the study showed autonomy is an idea which is given different meanings in a variety of member countries. This made reliable comparisons difficult.

In addition, the development of curricula in relation to core elements of the Bologna process, national and European qualifications, was difficult to evaluate, the EUA survey says. "These challenges point to the need for further, broader debate and analysis of the relationship between these elements," it adds.

EU leaders are expected to look closely at cooperation between higher education and the business world at a scheduled meeting in April. For a long time, the commission has been concerned about the untapped potential of links between business and universities.

While the benefits for both sides may seem self-evident, the level of cooperation is uneven across the 27-member bloc, the theme of Rapp's stress on partnership between public and private interests.

Already there has been one setback: a so-called EU Innovation Act (a package of measures designed to promote high-tech and science in Europe) was promised last year and was due for publication about now. It has been postponed at least until the summer so the new commissioners can revisit the whole exercise.

Moreover, it will not be called an act when it is finally made public but rather, less portentously, an 'action plan' or strategy. This delay and - presumably - a revision of contents, will give the EUA and those it represents further opportunities to influence the document's drafting.

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