Author: Don Obrien

University rankings are just an educated guess

Education updates

When St Andrews topped a table of UK universities last week, the 15th-century Scottish institution posted a photograph of a student leaping with joy in its quadrangle. Professor Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor, predicted an amiable reaction to it surpassing Oxford and Cambridge: “I expect there may be a little gentle cross-border teasing.”

If only. It is often said that academic disputes are so vicious because the stakes are so small, but college rankings are not a trivial matter. They are keenly tracked not only by students and parents, but academics, employers and potential donors. In the contest to draw international students, an attractive rating is a prize currency.

Since elite degrees are passports to professional jobs and improved social status, higher education behaves like a consumer industry, and the rankings business expands accordingly. A Chinese student whose family faces a $70,000 bill each year for her to attend a US university wants proof that the institution has aced its own examinations.

There are plenty to pick from. Although beaten in The Times and Sunday Times table, Oxford leads the research-focused Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, where St Andrews rests between 201 and 250. Ratings season continued this week, with Harvard at the top of the Wall Street Journal/THE US College Rankings. The Financial Times publishes business school rankings.

If you imagine academics gazing down on all this wryly from ivory towers, you are mistaken. Moshe Porat, former dean of the business school of Temple University in Philadelphia, was indicted for fraud in April for allegedly supplying fake data to US News & World Report to boost its ranking of Temple’s online graduate business degree and lure more students, which he denies.

Should so much weight be attached to rankings? Plainly not. Oxbridge’s demotion generated much coverage, but signifies little. It partly turned on the twin universities being rated lower by their students during the pandemic. But that was artificial — Oxbridge students boycotted a national survey of attitudes and were assumed to have been less satisfied, in line with other students subjected to distance learning. 

The model may well re-rate both institutions next year, no matter what the mood in the quad. Top universities often get similar scores, anyway. As one executive of a ranking group says, “the data is useful, but agonising over who has risen or fallen two places in a beauty parade is silly. It is just noise.”

University rankings are inherently questionable because they use various pieces of data — from graduation rates to how others rank an institution’s research — to come up with an overall number. If football matches were judged similarly, rather than on one score, there would be chaos.

Choosing a top research university over a cosier institution with a lower global rating makes little sense for many undergraduates, as the gap in St Andrews’ scores suggests. Ranking experts privately blame their customers for focusing too much on headlines rather than looking deeper, but their business is built on league tables.

Even if rankings were perfect measures, they would be vulnerable to distortion. Colleges are full of clever, determined people who spend a lot of time calculating how to game ratings. Porat is alleged to have done this fraudulently, but metrics such as teacher/student ratios, sometimes used as a proxy for teaching quality, can be improved by counting differently.

Indeed, many pay their rankers for advice. Ranking has become a more profitable business than publishing, from which it sprung — THE is now owned by a private equity company, not The Times. Some offer analytics and consulting alongside ratings, like a teacher being paid to advise you how to excel in an exam he sets.

Beyond all this, rankings tend to favour incumbents — it is hard to acquire a set of ancient honey-coloured buildings with lawns for students to leap on. Oxford and Harvard employ distinguished professors, who attract fine students, who later in life donate money, raising the teacher to student ratio, improving their scores and attracting fine students, etc.

Higher education is driven by the superstar effect, as in media, sports and banking. Those that top rankings gain disproportionate rewards, and even meticulous ratings can exacerbate inequalities. Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker journalist and podcaster, detailed how this discriminates against Dillard University, a historically black university in New Orleans.

There is little hope of universities treating rankings less seriously. One or two have boycotted them and lived with the consequences of descending league tables, but it takes nerve. Rankings affect funding for research and teaching in a profession that has expanded, yet grown more precarious.

Students should not get too embroiled in their status game, though. The best advice remains to visit some colleges, see which ones might suit you best, and try to ignore the noise.

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Oliver Bolt

Oliver Bolt

On Key

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