U-Multirank aims to improve HE, not sell newspapers

Is Times Higher Education worried about competition to its world university ranking from U-Multirank? It looks like it from the tone of its reporting on the new European ranking initiative launched in Dublin at the end of January.

Let us hope not, though – because this should not be a question of competition, but rather of greater transparency in the performance of higher education systems and institutions.

The European Commission has launched a new multidimensional ranking, which will allow stakeholders to get a clear picture of performance across the full range of institutions, highlighting excellence in all the different missions of universities – in teaching and learning, in knowledge transfer and regional development and in internationalisation, as well as in research.

The preparatory study on U-Multirank showed that a multidimensional ranking is feasible. Now is the time to implement it. At the European Union (EU) presidency conference in Ireland at the end of January, stakeholders agreed that U-Multirank had now entered the implementation phase.

Improving data quality and refining the indicators were identified as challenges, as no system is ever perfect from the start. This task will be carried out in complete transparency, with universities and other higher education stakeholders.

Participating institutions will have to set aside some time for collecting data. But as participants in the feasibility stage have told us, this investment in delivering data gives returns beyond taking part in the new ranking, and once the investment is made, maintaining the databases is done at a much smaller cost.

We have already had interest from a number of research-intensive universities for the implementation phase – and research-oriented universities were overrepresented in the sample of universities and colleges that participated in the 2011 feasibility study for U-Multirank.

The situation with LERU

Times Higher Education reported that LERU, the League of European Research Universities representing 21 of Europe's best research-intensive universities, had "pulled out" of U-Multirank. Yet LERU has not "pulled out" of anything, because the recruitment phase is only just starting.

Obviously, we hope that some LERU members will participate and also that they will be involved in shaping the ranking for the future. The U-Multirank Consortium has therefore approached LERU to join the advisory board for the new ranking – and we hope they will accept.

Far from being a waste of public money, it makes sound sense to invest in developing and improving higher education in Europe.

The European budget should of course concentrate on adding value to other efforts and this is why the EU limits its actions to doing things that cannot be achieved by member states working alone. U-Multirank is a perfect example of this kind of action.

Need for U-Multirank

Despite the fact that we have a good standard of higher education in Europe, we are not succeeding in using the full potential of our higher education institutions to create the growth and jobs we need as the basis of more sustainable societies.

We need universities and colleges that deliver results across the whole spectrum of the university mission – not only research, which is the focus of traditional rankings, but also teaching and learning, regional outreach, international profile and knowledge transfer.

U-Multirank, as a European ranking and transparency tool, will cater for this diversity and will tell us how our systems are performing – so that we can improve them.

However, the EU should not finance U-Multirank forever; this should be limited to the start-up phase. That is why the contract for delivering the ranking includes the design of a self-sustaining business plan and organising the transition to this model.

These are challenging times for higher education in Europe, and the purpose behind U-Multirank could not be clearer. Our objective is improving the performance of Europe's higher education systems – not just selling newspapers.

* Jordi Curell is director of higher education and international affairs in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture.