Rankings must reflect teaching's importance

December 31, 2009

I wholeheartedly applaud your efforts to refocus the methodology for the Times Higher Education World University Rankings ("Redrawing ranking rules for clarity, reliability and sense", 10 December).

However, if the opinions of the panel reflect those being consulted for the exercise, it will clearly be more of the same - a system that will "prove" those universities that believe they are the best to be so by deciding which are world class first and then creating the criteria to show just that.

When a panellist in all sincerity can say "If you do focus on research, you lose a lot of the data problems", it is clear that what is really being said is that we should measure what is easy rather than what matters. Teaching should matter: despite it being difficult to measure, it can be done. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Survey of Student Engagement both use methods that emphasise factors known from research to be related to high-quality undergraduate outcomes.

Another panellist, speaking under Chatham House rules, said that excellence in research was as good a proxy as any for satisfaction with teaching. On what evidence is that statement based? While it is very difficult to do controlled studies to answer this question, a paper in the Medical Teacher journal (March 2009) shows that when students were randomly allocated to two universities, one high ranking and one lower ranking in the research league tables, the outcomes as measured by written and practical examinations were identical and the perceptions of teaching were higher in the lower-ranking institution.

Jean McKendree, Hull York Medical School.

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