Collaboration may not measure up in competitive 'alpha-male' rankings

Conference considers the pros and cons of world university league tables, writes John Morgan

April 1, 2010

Anyone who enjoys poring over world university rankings to see whether their institution did better than its rivals is indulging in an "alpha-male" activity, a professor has said.

Rebecca Hughes, chair of applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham, made the argument in the session "League tables: flawed rankings or key benchmarks?" at the British Council's "Going Global" conference in London.

Professor Hughes, who said her interest in rankings stemmed from her recent role as chair of Nottingham's collaborative courses committee, said: "They do seem a rather alpha-male kind of undertaking. Within their DNA, I would say, there is a competitive rather than a collaborative strand."

While Professor Hughes said rankings could be "useful shorthand", she argued that there were two key negatives - the obscuring of departmental strengths by low rankings for an institution, and "risk-averse" high-ranking institutions deciding against capacity-building cross-border links because of the low ranking of prospective partners.

Phil Baty, deputy editor of Times Higher Education and editor of the THE World University Rankings, explained in the session how the magazine's rankings were being transformed.

He opened with a "confession". "The world rankings we've been publishing for the past six years - I don't think they are fit for purpose any more," he said.

On the issue of why rankings were worthwhile, Mr Baty pointed to the globalisation of higher education. "We believe strongly that rankings, despite their limitations, help us understand this process," he said.

Thomson Reuters is the data gatherer for the new THE rankings.

Mr Baty said that improvements included a larger, targeted survey of academics across the world, much more fine subject detail and more sophisticated use of citations data.

He called for criticism and input, and added: "Only with the engagement of the higher education sector will we achieve a tool that is as rigorous and as transparent and as useful as the sector needs and deserves."

Paul Marshall, chief executive of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said league tables were "useful in terms of measuring the success of our strategic plans".

He highlighted the context in which UK universities worked, describing a "market" in which institutions competed for the best students and staff and used research assessment to look at the performance of staff. "League tables are important for universities that have ambitions within this market," he added.

Fabrice Henard, an analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, discussed its Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) project. League tables suffered from an "information gap" on teaching quality, he argued.

He added that Ahelo was a feasibility study "to assess whether reliable cross-national comparisons of higher education learning outcomes are possible".

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