Peers call for U-Multirank U-turn after failing to discern its value

House of Lords report advises Europe to ‘prioritise other activities’. Jack Grove writes

March 22, 2012

Plans for a new global university ranking system have failed to impress a House of Lords committee examining higher education in Europe.

Due to start in 2013, U-Multirank will allow students to choose their own criteria to compare universities and will provide an alternative to established league tables based primarily on research attainment.

But the Lords’ European Union Committee has advised the European Commission, which will fund the scheme, to “prioritise other activities”.

The recommendation was made in the report The Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe, published on 22 March, which was informed by testimony from UK academics, universities and higher education bodies.

Baroness Young of Hornsey, chair of the subcommittee that carried out the inquiry, said U-Multirank had attracted widespread criticism.

“No one really came out and said this is a good idea,” she said.

“It is important to help students decide which university is most appropriate for them. If [U-Multirank] could have achieved that, it would be useful, but we were not convinced that it could. And if it could not do that, then it was hard to see where its value would be.”

Baroness Young said the European Union-backed scheme might also be seen as an attempt by the EU “to pump up universities in Europe”, echoing the view voiced by David Willetts, minister for universities and science, when he appeared before the committee in January.

He said U-Multirank could be viewed as an attempt by the EU “to fix a set of rankings” in which its universities perform better than they do in conventional league tables.

Other witnesses raised concerns about the scheme, the report says. These include “a lack of clarity as to whether it would be a ranking or transparency tool”; that the league table market was “too crowded”; and that it could be used “as the basis for future funding decisions”.

The report also highlights many positive EU initiatives in higher education. It points to the €40 billion (£33 billion) to be made available for education and training between 2014 and 2020, and the €19 billion allocated to Erasmus for All.

It urges the UK government to support the funding allocation for Erasmus, despite Mr Willetts’ assertion that the proposed 70 per cent uplift on the previous settlement was “completely unrealistic” given Europe’s financial situation.

However, it states that Erasmus needs to work harder to attract students from poorer families, who are under-represented on the study-abroad scheme. Introducing placements shorter than year-long stays could attract more socially diverse applicants, the report suggests.

It also supports plans to create an EU-backed loan system for master’s students on courses outside their home countries.

The report has been delivered ahead of a meeting of European higher education ministers in Romania in late April to discuss the Bologna Process, which seeks to harmonise Europe’s higher education systems.

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