The Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) is responsible for what is arguably Germany’s best-known university ranking system.
Results are presented by means of a simple traffic-light method of classification: top-rated universities get green buttons, average ones yellow and low scorers blue. But the ratings paintbox has recently seen the addition of a new colour: a lot of universities are seeing red.
It all started last September when 300 economics professors signed an open letter of protest against the separate ranking conducted by Handelsblatt, a sober business daily, which does an annual “best of” listing for academics in strict accordance with the number of publications candidates have to their credit.
Prolific publishers were deemed “high-flyers” in their fields and figured accordingly on the lists. The protesters included even academics who scored well in the ratings yet still felt the “Pop Idol” criteria of quantity, rather than quality, unworthy of serious academia.
But that was just the start. Emboldened by their economics colleagues, other university faculties began to protest. First, members of the German Sociological Association declared they would no longer be forwarding data for the CHE rankings.
Then came the English faculties, followed by the Association of Historians and educationalists and, finally, the German Association of Chemists, comprising 30,000 members, who said they were tired of constant ratings and rankings and would also no longer participate.
Then an even bigger catastrophe: the University of Hamburg announced that henceforth it would not provide any data at all to the CHE.
Instead, Dieter Lenzen, the university’s president, declared that he supported looser ratings, rather than hierarchical rankings, similar to those published by the German Science Council and financed by public funds. And the institutions concurring with Lenzen now include the universities of Leipzig and Cologne as well as Hagen, Germany’s distance-learning university.
But is this wise? And can such educational establishments, financed by the taxpayer, afford to close their doors entirely to the CHE, a think-tank founded by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Rectors’ Conference, that ranks approximately 30 study courses at around 300 German universities each year?
Frank Ziegele, managing director of the CHE, is critical of Hamburg’s withdrawal from the system. “I can understand it when universities feel snowed under by constant requests for data,” he says, “but I think Hamburg is overreacting.” More-over, he feels, universities should have a policy of transparency towards the public.
George Turner, a columnist on educational policy with the quirky Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, agrees. “I don’t see any sense in a prolonged boycott of rankings,” he says. “It’s the universities that will suffer because rankings are a fact of life and they influence government decision-making, whether we like it or not.”
Turner concedes that he could understand if protests in Germany were directed against the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities, for example, which is heavily biased in favour of the amount of plaudits - Nobel prizewinners, publications in the English-speaking academic world - a university has to its name.
Turner argues that the CHE ranking system is “best suited to producing meaningful results”.
Indeed, the CHE rankings have come a long way since they first started in 1998, when early findings were based on narrow criteria - such as the numbers of visiting research academics or a university’s fundraising potential - that bore little relation to academic life.
These days a raft of cross-connected, interlocking criteria provides comprehensive information for new students as well as those seeking to change courses or move to another university.
It also allows academics, researchers and university staff to see how their university has performed in comparison with other institutions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
In all, the CHE rankings are compiled using input from around 200,000 students and 15,000 professors. Even small faculties, with only 30 students, are taken into account provided the CHE gets at least 10 per cent feedback.
The CHE sees itself as the provider of a detailed analysis, rather than an overall ranking, covering aspects including job-market relevance, infrastructure such as libraries and lecture halls, research facilities, international links and partnerships and student advisory services.
Despite this, Lenzen says he feels that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages and the university spends a lot of time and energy providing information for no real reason with little benefit.
“The University of Hamburg already ranks among the top 5 per cent of German universities,” he says, “so we really don’t need to prove anything.”
In future, therefore, the university will cooperate with the government and pass on data to the Federal Statistical Office as well as participating in scientific studies. However, it will no longer take part in rankings.
Yet other academics, such as Holger Burckhart, rector of the university of Siegen, urge fellow academics not to dismiss rankings too lightly.
“We live in a world which pays attention to rankings and acts in accordance with their findings. We can’t just ignore that,” he says.
Of course, all rankings are controversial, but a wholesale boycott at national level, such as the one the German Sociological Association and the Association of Historians have undertaken, is counter-productive, he argues.
“We won’t be able to compete internationally if we don’t submit to rankings,” he continues.
Moreover, Burckhart says, there are differences in the levels of academic performance, teaching and research, something that universities must learn to accept.
So does he think rankings are a good thing? “I think they are a good means of external assessment for academic staff as well as university heads; they set international standards.”
Finally, he says, they make a valuable contribution to quality assurance since they provide data and information from a vast cross-section of the academic population.
However, Burckhart says, they are no substitute for a dialogue with those involved in academic processes or affected by certain developments.
By contrast, Lenzen says he thinks that rankings have no place at all in the German academic context and views them as an essentially British phenomenon that can be justified only when students pay tuition fees and want some proof that they are getting “value for money”.
In the German academy, then, the debate on rankings shows little sign of abating.