THE World University Rankings

March 4, 2010

Times Higher Education's World University Rankings have become something of a benchmark for governments and higher education experts worldwide.

In his inaugural address last year as president of Universities UK, Steve Smith said that "we have four UK universities among the top 10 in the world rankings ... and a total of 17 in the top 100", arguing that Britain was still punching above its weight.

And Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University, referred to the rankings to make his case when he gave the Higher Education Policy Institute's annual lecture, on the rise of Asia's universities, last month.

So if the rankings have become an accepted reference point, why are we making such dramatic changes, switching our data provider and revamping our methodology? We are doing so precisely because the rankings have become such a respected reference point. If they are starting to influence strategic thinking and even government policy, we have a responsibility to make them as rigorous as possible.

One of the most stinging criticisms of our former methodology came from Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick. In 2007, he criticised the pecking order in that year's rankings, arguing that it defied common sense. "The organisations that promote such ideas should be unhappy ... and so should any supine universities that endorse results they view as untruthful," he said.

Universities are, as Professor Oswald put it, in the "truth business". Rankings can never achieve "the truth" - too many judgment calls have to be made, too many proxies for complex activities must be employed - but they can get closer to it by being more rigorous and more transparent.

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