Higher Education Rankings: Who Cares?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday, both The Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd reported on the new international rankings releases by Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings, the latter which is being released with US News & World Report next week.

Of great opportunity, I was attending the OECD IMHE conference in Paris during the release, and both “papers” quoted colleagues of mine attending the conference.

It’s interesting, because no one likes any of these rankings. Like faculty rankings, and surely like US News & World Report in the United States, and MacLean’s in Canada, no one likes them. Unless, of course, your institution just happens to be on the list. Then you like them, not just a little, but beaucoup!!!

But here’s the real issue this year: Global Rankings have become this year’s global war.

The London-based Times Higher Education placed Harvard at number one, where it usually sits, followed by lots of other US-based universities.

In the QS World University Rankings, the US Universities fill the top tier, with the University of Cambridge (wasn’t it Cambridge University??) at number one. And this has really pissed some people off, especially the Americans (Simon Cowell must be lurking….).

In the end, what does this mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing (I feel a War song coming on). Even my friend and colleague Ellen Hazelkorn of Ireland said yesterday at OECD, “Nothing’s really changed.” And she’s right. Just another metric by an international conglomerate wanting to sell papers and ads online.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. US News has been doing it for years. And I am not one to chastise their involvement in this mess. As Robert Morse said earlier this year at a CHEA conference in DC, “You come up with something better!” People like me can throw darts all the time, but until we come up with something better, who’s to say?

The problem is this: perhaps we shouldn’t be measuring some of these things. A colleague and close friend of mine once told me, if you can’t measure it, don’t. But that’s not what the rest of us want. We want to know who is number one, and two, and three. Take a step back for a moment. What are we suggesting? But because we are human, and this has an antecedent in sociological research, we like to organize and we like to compartmentalize. We want to know who ranks where, even if we don’t have legitimate information to do so.

I’ve written before about the Rand’s CLS instrument, and now even OECD is involved in a new outcome measure of “value added” of university-level education. I don’t think that works either, and from the atmosphere in Paris yesterday, no one else does either. Still, it isn’t a bad thing to persevere and work toward better and better systems. This is just step one.

In the end, I am a firm believer in national tests in higher education. Why? Because they will tell us what we need to know. And yes, it means that universities need to streamline at least part of their curriculum, mostly in the first (freshman) and second (sophomore) years. And if we do it with pre and post tests, in core subjects, then, and only then, will we know that Plattsburg State does a better job in Psych 101 than Stanford. I want to see those data!

From lovely Paris, where I’ve been absconded in my room all day working, have a great weekend!!!

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