Government policy is blind to big picture in global rankings

Scholar says data analysis flags up risks of moving toward US-style sector, writes John Morgan

May 26, 2011

The notion that world university rankings offer evidence of total US supremacy is a "misapprehension" that affords the UK government false justification for policies of "competition, marketisation and privatisation".

That is the argument made by Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, who has analysed data on 400 institutions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

He believes that policymakers and others have been wrong to focus on the apparent dominance of private US institutions at the upper end of the rankings.

Professor Hotson said that any comparison of performance must adjust for the US' large population and high gross domestic product, as well as its relatively high level of spending on tertiary education (3.1 per cent of GDP compared with 1.3 per cent in the UK).

He added that the entire top 400 institutions had to be examined - rather than the top 10 or 50 - to assess depth of quality.

The UK, Australia and Canada are "performing better than the US university system in terms of value for money even at the top of the table, and in terms of population further down as well", he claimed.

Professor Hotson decided to examine university rankings amid growing concern about the UK government's changes to higher education policy. He believes his analysis undermines the idea of absolute US supremacy.

"I'm simply astounded that this misapprehension can be so widespread," Professor Hotson said. "What shocks me even more is that this misapprehension seems to align very closely with government policy in this country."

The US has a mixed higher education market including not-for-profit private universities, public universities and for-profit private institutions.

Professor Hotson sees a desire to follow the US model in UK government policy, which includes the decoupling of funding from state block grants and the introduction of increased for-profit private provision.

"The THE rankings evidence very clearly indicates that the government's assumption that this mixed market generates better value for money is mistaken," Professor Hotson said.

The THE world rankings officially list only the top 200, but they provide data on 400 institutions via an iPhone application. The top 400 show a gradual transition in quality from the UK's top tier of universities to the rest, argued Professor Hotson. This is in contrast to US universities, the number of which falls sharply below the top 100.

This means that students in the UK can find good "next-best options" if they are unable to access their first choice, and UK academics have a good range of institutions at which to find careers.

In the 350-400 range, for example, there are nine UK universities and six US institutions.

"The (even) dispersion of quality across the UK system is a very good thing: for the student, the academic and certainly the taxpayer, because you get value throughout the system," Professor Hotson said.

He added: "When government ministers claim we need to radically overhaul the method of funding UK universities in order to drive up standards, that assumes the standards of UK universities are very poor by international comparators. By what set of international comparators is the UK's performance poor?" Other rankings show patterns similar to THE's, he said.

The UK appears to have a better return than the US for the proportion of its total institutions that make the global top 400.

Of the 2,675 US higher education institutions offering four-year degrees, 105 (4 per cent) make the top 400. But of 165 UK institutions, 54 (32 per cent) make the top 400.

Professor Hotson said the natural conclusion to be drawn from the rankings is that "competition, marketisation (and) privatisation drive down value for money".

The rankings suggest "we certainly shouldn't be overhauling...a system that is delivering excellent quality and fantastic value for money", he said.

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