THE World University Rankings

July 15, 2010

I was disturbed by an email that dropped into my in-box late last month.

No, it was not another offer of cheap Viagra, or an announcement that I had won an overseas lottery. It was more unsettling than that.

"Dear academic," it began. The greeting alone was a surprise, given that I am a journalist with little more than a bachelor's degree by way of academic credentials.

But my unease grew with each line of the message. The email was from a major education information company inviting me to take part in an online survey that would be used to create a university ranking.

It said that my role as a leading educationalist combined with my subject focus made my opinion very important. It even offered to enter me into a prize draw if I passed on my great wisdom and spent 10 minutes filling in the form.

It would be amusing if the implications were not so serious. As the email claimed, the audience for the company's annual exercise is in the millions, and it is clear that university league tables in various forms have become a very big business with wide influence.

Any organisation, such as Times Higher Education, that seeks to create rankings must accept its responsibility to conduct thorough research and to employ sound data.

There is a responsibility on companies doing such surveys that academics are selected carefully by discipline, and by country and continent if appropriate. If compilers want universities and students to see their league table as robust the onus is on them to take a rigorous approach.

When rankings can make or break a university's reputation, or influence multimillion-pound strategic decisions, anything less will simply not do.

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