How useful are university rankings?

In a recent piece I argued that teaching students is the core function and purpose of universities, wherever they are. Next comes the dissemination of knowledge, because academics do much of the sorting and sifting of information that, in theory at least, leads to knowledge, and then, hopefully, wisdom. Research — finding out new things — comes third. The first two functions virtually require universities, or something like them. The third doesn’t at all, and research is done all over the place, even though academics think it is somehow special to them, and their ‘peer-review’ and journal system.

So how is it, you ask, that the rankings of universities depends on research prowess? What purpose do they serve? What does the research performance of academic staff tell you about whether or not a university is a good place in which your 18 year-old might undertake his or her first degree? In my opinion it doesn’t tell you much at all, unless you are interested in relative status, and think that the ‘better’ the university, the better for your child. ‘Better for what?’ would be my response.

My experience of universities is that, on the whole, the people who are excellent and productive researchers, those who give the university its ranking, are somewhat unlikely to be teaching undergraduates anyway or, if they do, those students will be in a small honours class. If the researchers are significantly involved in teaching, the students are likely to be graduates, in both PhD programs and in masters-level courses. Every university will be able to offer honourable exceptions to this rule, and all power to them. I still think it is the rule.

The current international rankings have been issued, by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), and the results are no surprise. All that happens each year is that one or two of the ‘top’ universities move up or down a rank. The top three are Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, in that order. Indeed seven of the first ten are American. The first Australian university to make the list is Melbourne, at #54, then the ANU (#66), UQ (#85), UWA (#91) and Sydney (#97). In all, nineteen of our universities have a place in the top 500. What about the Brits? Cambridge at #5 and Oxford at #10 lead their team, which has nine in the top one hundred.

What of SJTU itself, you ask. Like so many other universities around the world, it started as a teachers college, in 1896, and before very long became known for itself engineering school. It seems to have had a bad time in the 1950s, when some faculties were transferred to other institutions, and a lot of the staff were sent to Xi’an to start a new university there. Now, the website says proudly, ‘Since the reform and opening up policy in China, SJTU has taken the lead in management reform of institutions for higher education, regaining its vigor and vitality with an unprecedented momentum of growth…. A number of disciplines have been advancing towards the top echelon internationally, and a batch of burgeoning branches of learning have taken an important position domestically.’ There you go.

I have visited a number of Chinese universities, including the oldest, the University of Peking, but not this one, which plainly is on a steep rise. I quote again from the website: ‘Today SJTU has 31 schools (departments), 63 undergraduate programs, 250 masters-degree programs, 203 Ph.D. programs, 28 post-doctorate programs, and 11 state key laboratories and national engineering research centers. SJTU boasts a large number of famous scientists and professors, including 35 academics of the Academy of Sciences and Academy of Engineering, 95 accredited professors and chair professors of the “Cheung Kong Scholars Program” and more than 2,000 professors and associate professors.’ Student enrolments are at 36,000, of whom 16,000 are undergraduates.

And where does it fit on its own ranking of universities? Somewhere between #151 and #200, and it is third in the China. Incidentally, there are now 28 Chinese universities that have a place in the top 500. In 2003, when these rankings began, there were only nine, and SJTU was seventh in the list.

What does all this mean? Well, the rise over eleven years of Chinese universities in doing research that gets published in the  most-read journals means that their staff are doing good research. Since Nobel prize-winning seems to count for a lot in these rankings it has to be said that all the Chinese Nobel prize-winners in science — and there have been a few in the last decade or so — have worked in universities outside China. But I doubt that it will be very long before one of the locals gets the Nobel guernsey.

For the rest of us, the rankings are of value, if then, only to Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Research) and the people who work in university PR departments. If you really care about the quality of education that your child, or grandchild, will receive at university, do some homework, and ask some undergraduates what they like and dislike about the education they are receiving. Ask some newly minted graduates.

Please don’t think that the rankings mean anything. If you are an undergraduate wanting to go to postgraduate work, you don’t need the rankings either. Your supervisors will have a pretty good idea of where you will do well. If they tell you that you should stay with them, right there, nod politely and move quickly away. You will benefit from going somewhere else, all other things being equal.







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