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Education Plus

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What do the rankings signify?


A look at some of the parameters that decide the ranking of an institution.

This Thursday, college principals throughout the world will strike the refresh buttons of their browsers restlessly. Why? The Times Higher Education (THES) - QS World University Rankings will be out.

College rankings have mushroomed since Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University launched its original Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2003. And for many high school students and graduates, such rankings have become a compass, pointing to the wo rld’s most renowned institutions of higher learning. Some of the rankings have also been criticised by some for looking into specific parameters. However, they serve as a broad guideline to students.

Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking

The mother of all international rankings measures nothing but research quality. It takes into account the number of Nobel prizes and Field Medals won by alumni and faculty, citations in prestigious scientific magazines and the size of every institution. “The ARWU paints a fairly good picture of research excellence,” says Alex Usher, vice-director of the independent Education Policy Institute. But how useful is it for upcoming students wavering between colleges?

“It is a suitable instrument for aspiring academics, but for the majority of students it’s a lot less useful. Although it must be said that the colleges that top the table also tend to maintain tight admission criteria and hence become gathering places for the best and brightest,” Mr. Usher says.

A notable flaw of the ARWU is the systematic undervaluation of institutions with humanities or social sciences focus, say some. To their credit, the creators of the ranking admit that and stress that people should make their own judgment based on the ranking methodology as well as consult other sources.

Quacquarelli Symonds Asian and World University Rankings

The rankings blend two different approaches. Forty per cent of total weight is allotted to peer review, 10 per cent to employer review and the remaining 50 per cent is divided between factors measuring citations in scientific publications, the faculty/student-ratio and the number of international faculty and student members. The peer review boils down to a survey asking academics worldwide to select institutions they consider to “produce the best research” from a list without having to motivate their choice.

However, some feel that that peer review can be a valuable method only if the peers get to judge specific data.

Moreover, a Nicaraguan law professor could judge an Indian engineering school if he wants to. “We tried to narrow it down by asking academics to choose a field of expertise and a geographical region they are knowledgeable about. If they do so, they can only select institutions from their own region and research domain,” says Ben Sowter, Head of Research at Quacquarelli Symonds. Still, these regions are as broad as ‘Asia’ or ‘Latin and Central America’.

Sample sizes can differ between countries, which could skew the results in favour of countries with a lot of respondents, says Mr. Usher.

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