European Union defies criticism of its university ranking plan

The European Commission’s higher education head has defended the European Union’s planned U-Multirank university rankings system against its critics.

Jordi Curell, director of lifelong learning, higher education and international affairs at the directorate general for education and culture, conceded that there was opposition to its development.

"When we started working on the project of U-Multirank, many people from the higher education community were opposed to it,” he told an international symposium on university rankings and quality assurance in Brussels on 12 April.

But the system had intrinsic value, he said, because it would provide an evidence-based measure of the performance of European universities, which would help them improve.

According to Curell, if higher education is to help Europe emerge from its current financial and economic crisis, the EU needs to know how its universities are performing and universities need to know how they are doing.

"Rankings which are carefully thought out are the only transparency tools which can give a comparative picture of higher education institutions at a national, European and global level," he told the symposium.

in March the UK House of Lords’ European Union committee called the initiative a waste of money. Its report argued that U-Multirank brought nothing new to a market already crowded by other international ranking systems, such as those developed by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Times Higher Education magazine and QS.

But Brussels plans to plough ahead regardless.

The commission announced in March that it would spend €4 million (US$5.2 million) testing its newly developed ranking system. It has asked higher education specialists to compete for a contract to pilot the tool. The results of this pilot will be published at the end of 2013.

Curell told the symposium that generally, a reluctance to support rankings had evolved. But while they might not reflect the full diversity of reality, rankings shape the perception of that reality.

He advised representatives of higher education institutions present at the event to try to influence how rankings develop rather than opposing the trend.

He stressed that U-Multirank would be international in scope. “This tool should not and will not be confined to the EU, since higher education is today a global issue." And he agreed that work needed to be done to improve its data – by ensuring that a critical mass of universities from both inside and outside the EU was persuaded to participate.

Also, he stressed that the pilot would involve devising a long-term business model for the system, which would not be run by the commission but an independent operator.

Waldemar Siwinksi, vice-president of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, argued at the meeting that a media organisation would be the best fit for the job if it worked with a research institution and a data-gathering organisation.

This model already exists in Britain, where Times Higher Education magazine manages and publishes the World University Rankings in cooperation with Thomson Reuters, he noted.

Meanwhile, he called on international university ranking system providers to include more data from national ranking systems when drafting their league tables. Siwinksi explained that for most students international rankings are far less important than national ones.

“The majority of students still study in their own countries,” he argued. “International students constitute only 2% of the whole student population in the world.”

He said national rankings offered prospective students a picture of the cultural environment in which universities operated. They could also help universities improve their performance, and so it would be valuable to incorporate their data into global ranking systems.

Siwinksi linked the high scores US, British, German and Japanese universities obtain in international rankings to the existence of strong national ranking systems, which have helped spark management reforms.

Professor Andrea Bonaccorsi, of the Italian National Agency for Evaluation, Universities and Research Institutes, said he hoped that by 2015 there would be a sustainable and small number of efficient global ranking systems vetted by independent audits.