Pressing need for more sophisticated rankings – EUA

This month’s annual conference of the European University Association, or EUA, debated how rankings systems needed to become more sophisticated benchmarking exercises, as higher education worldwide becomes ever more internationalised.

Speaking to University World News after the event held at the University of Ghent in Belgium, EUA Secretary General Lesley Wilson said that while “everyone has a different view” about rankings, there was a need to deliver comprehensive benchmarking systems with which universities could compare themselves against other higher education institutions.

“In future it should be easier to see where one stands in relation to one’s peers and the regions in which they work,” she said.

Wilson agreed with a comment made at the conference by European Union Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, that the predominant focus of existing research-weighted rankings did not necessarily help to improve the quality of higher education – which is about far more than just research excellence.

She admitted that this was mainly because of a current lack of output indicators regarding the quality of teaching.

And within Europe, there was an added difficulty of some cultural reservations about ranking systems. Whereas in the UK ranking measurements were taken for granted, this was by no means the case across the European Union (EU), Wilson noted.

But the need to work towards agreement about what makes a world-class university was becoming acute, given the increasing technical, political, social and purely educational pressures to boost international cooperation between universities.

Broader internationalisation strategies needed

This was recognised by Vassiliou, who told the conference: “The internationalisation of higher education is no longer just about students leaving their country to study abroad. It’s about a whole change of mindset.”

She also stressed how the higher education landscape was changing, with students from China, India and South Korea becoming the most mobile in the world.

The number of students in higher education worldwide is expected to grow fourfold, from around 100 million in 2000 to an estimated 400 million by 2030 – with Asia and Latin America in the growth lead.

“If there are today around four million internationally mobile students in the world, estimations indicate that it might grow to seven million by 2020,” the commissioner added.

“European universities will have to attract more talent from around the world, and they will have to engage in cooperation with the new higher education hubs on other continents.”

As a result, European universities needed to develop broader strategies that go beyond mobility and cover many other types of academic cooperation such as joint degrees, support for capacity building, joint research projects and distance learning programmes.

Vassiliou added that the concept of e-learning ‘internationalisation at home’ projects was key to ensuring that the majority (98%) of students not in a position to study abroad could nevertheless enjoy the benefits associated with international exposure.

The conference itself reflected higher education’s internationalisation – more than half of the EUA’s 850-institution membership, covering 17 million students, attended the two-day event.

Self-evidently in the light of this global perspective, many of the delegates were preoccupied with the contentious question of international university rankings and some discussions focused on the European Commission’s own U-Multirank system.

With U-Multirank's first results expected early next year, 500 universities across the world have already been canvassed and, as of this month, 279 have so far replied, including institutions from the United States, France, Switzerland and Sweden. In the 27-nation EU, only The Netherlands and Luxembourg have not yet responded.

U-Multirank will differ from existing rankings by rating universities according to a broader range of performance factors, aimed at what it claims will be a “more realistic and user-friendly guide” to what institutions have to offer.

International cooperation

Meanwhile, focusing on international cooperation, Wilson cited two recent ambitious developments aimed at extending the current understanding of what can be achieved by learning institutions working in tandem.

The first involves Britain’s Warwick University and Australia’s Monash University. Under the slogan “One World, Two Universities, Infinite Opportunities”, the programme launched last year is pioneering methods of strategically pooling resources that are intended to go beyond most received ideas about internationalisation.

The second involves a French-speaking trio of institutions – Free University in Brussels, the University of Geneva and the University of Montreal – and is closely modelled on the Warwick-Monash initiative.

Wilson said it was far too early to speculate about where these burgeoning arrangements would lead. But all being well, they could be of significant benefit both to students and staff.

“We don’t know whether they will work or not,” she said, although she clearly thought that such new professional intimacy between widely dispersed institutions could only be a positive development, though a long-term one.

Impacts of the financial crisis

These thoughts took place in the sombre, if familiar, context of Europe’s continuing economic and fiscal crisis and the financial pressures European universities are suffering partly as a result.

On the one hand, there is the prospect that more budget cuts will damage the EU’s Erasmus international exchange and lifelong learning programmes at a time when EU governments are doing the bare minimum to finance existing obligations.

On the other hand, there remain political imperatives to meet an EU tertiary education target of ensuring that at least 40% of Europeans in the 30-34 age group have a higher education by 2020. In 2005, the figure was 28% and in 2010 it was 34%.

As the European Parliament’s education committee has just observed, students were told before Christmas that previous uncertainty about 2013 funding for Erasmus was over.

But given the continuing discord over the EU budget deal for 2014-20, agreed by heads of government in February, negotiations over future spending on a projected EU Erasmus for All programme have now been reopened and negotiations will resume in earnest between the European Commission, EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on 24 April.

EUA housekeeping

As for the EUA, its conference decided on a housekeeping measure – that in future all EUA annual conferences will take place in Belgium, most probably in Brussels, where the EUA is based.

This is for reasons of geographical convenience and also in the hope that proximity to the EU’s headquarters and the European Parliament will make it easier to attract speakers from the highest levels of EU policy-making.

Meanwhile, the EUA is increasing its focus on Africa, fostering links between African and European universities, especially in areas such as economic development and health.

“I really believe that the experience of internationalisation of universities which we have been building up through the EU can serve as a template for international work between continents but also within continents, Africa and Latin America being the most obvious and potentially dramatic examples,” Wilson told University World News.