THE World University Rankings

Last week, under the shimmering chandeliers of the 257-year-old Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in Stockholm, a very modern sort of conversation took place.

May 13, 2010

At a symposium on university performance measures, Academy members and guests debated bibliometrics and the "explosive" rise of world university rankings.

Peter van den Besselaar, a professor at the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, said that global rankings had become a "hot topic" - heavily criticised, yet also heavily used - among university managers.

He criticised the Shanghai Jiao Tong world rankings, arguing that existing systems' main weakness was their failure to address the individual missions and goals of the institutions they evaluated. This had "perverse effects", he said, as managers followed "the incentives embedded in the indicators".

Professor van den Besselaar called for a multi-dimensional ranking, with solid indicators relevant to different missions. This is being attempted by the European Commission-funded U-Multirank project, an interactive ranking where institutions are compared with those of the same type and mission via indicators chosen by users. But the project is only at the pilot phase of a feasibility study, and will rank just two subject areas by the end of 2011.

In the meantime, Professor van den Besselaar said: "Decision-makers will have to learn that rankings do not solve their selection and decision problems - but at most inform them."

It is clear that as rankings become more influential, they should come with health warnings about the limitations of the available data and the compromises and judgement calls made. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings will.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

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