We’re pioneering a new way to measure teaching quality across Europe

Phil Baty explains the motivation and methodology behind the inaugural Times Higher Education Europe Teaching Rankings 

June 28, 2018
Map of the world with magnifying glass on Europe
Source: iStock

You have to take a lot of flak as the editor in charge of one of the world’s most influential university ranking systems.

The biggest criticism of the global rankings – applied to them all – is that they fail to properly recognise perhaps the single most important aspect of any university: its mission to teach.

At Times Higher Education we worked hard to ensure we included teaching metrics in the THE World University Rankings. While some global rankings ignore teaching altogether, THE includes five measures of what we describe as the “teaching environment”, worth 30 per cent of the total score.

But I must be frank: teaching is not well served by global rankings, THE’s included. Why not? In our case, it is partly because the THE rankings are not exclusively designed for student consumers. They are, of course, widely referenced and trusted by students and their families, and rightly so. But our data and insights are also used by governments and policymakers, university leaders and faculty. So it is important that we cover all of a university’s core missions, including research, knowledge transfer and internationalisation.

As the THE rankings are a significant geopolitical indicator, focussing on countries’ relative strengths as knowledge economies, the research metrics we use are a vital component.

There is, however, also a rather less worthy reason for teaching being drowned out by research in global rankings: research quality is easy to capture.

There are established and widely-understood data sources covering research, and they can easily be applied across national borders. Capturing teaching excellence, in contrast, is extremely difficult – even more so when you seek to compare teaching across different countries.

But the fact things are difficult has never put us off at THE.

Our mission is to provide the data and insights to help universities succeed against their mission, and we recognise that there is no single model of excellence in global higher education.

So we are keen to expand the range of metrics we use and to develop more mission-specific rankings. With this in mind, I’m delighted to confirm that we are soon to publish the world’s first international university ranking that puts student needs at its very heart – focussed entirely on teaching and learning – and initially covering institutions across Europe.

The centrepiece of the new THE European Teaching Rankings, to be published at the THE Teaching Excellence Summit at the University of Glasgow on 11 July, is a massive student survey. Building on three years of experience and almost 300,000 responses to THE’s US Student Survey, the inaugural European Student survey run earlier this year has captured detailed responses from 30,000 students in more than 10 European countries.

The survey covers a wide range of core questions, focused not on student satisfaction, but on their engagement with learning, and how much they are stretched and challenged in the classroom.

It asks questions such as: does the university support your critical thinking? Are you encouraged to apply your learning to the real world? To what extent do you have the opportunity to interact with faculty and teachers, or other students? Would you recommend the course to a friend or family member?

This constitutes a unique new data source on European university teaching.

Combined with the THE European Student Survey, we have included metrics looking at an institution’s resources: having plenty of money and good facilities does not guarantee good teaching, but it certainly helps an institution to provide it, and is something that students and their families care about.

We have also developed metrics on student outcomes, although this has been particularly challenging given the dearth of high quality student destination data in many European countries.

A new initiative I’m particularly proud of is the inclusion of two new indicators of gender equality, part of our diversity metrics. THE sees this of vital importance in a sector still blighted by gender inequality, but as it is another world first in international rankings, the metrics are simple: we look at the proportion of female academic staff, and the proportion of female students, with maximum points for a 50:50 ratio.

The whole initiative is an unprecedented and extremely exciting development in global rankings. But it has been a huge challenge, so inevitably there have been compromises and the ranking will be published later this month with many caveats. In order to secure sufficiently rich data, for example, we have had to restrict the number of European nations we have covered in the first ranking – focusing on western and southern European nations initially.

We have also excluded very small institutions from the first iteration of the ranking (those under 5,000 undergraduates), in order to ensure enough student survey responses for statistically valid analysis. We can also only rank institutions who work with us to provide sufficient data.

The ranking published on 11 July will be a pilot, featuring around 250 institutions across eight nations. The launch event in Glasgow will also serve as a consultation session – the first, no doubt, of many.

With the engagement we always enjoy and rely on from universities, I am equally sure that these rankings will become as rich and as comprehensive as we would like. In time, they can become a powerful counter-balance to the dominance of research in traditional global rankings, and a much-needed fresh perspective on excellence.

Phil Baty is editorial director, global rankings at Times Higher Education.

The full results of this pioneering research will be announced at the Times Higher Education Teaching Excellence Summit at the University of Glasgow 10-12 July. Duncan Ross will explore the results in detail at the event. Register now to join the discussions.

You can read the full explanation of our Europe Teaching Rankings methodology here. 

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