U-Map if you want to, but critics aren't convinced

Some fear that Europe-wide university classification will hamstring institutions. Phil Baty reports

August 6, 2009

It has been hailed as an antidote to traditional league tables - a transparent and fair way to compare a university's performance with that of its peers.

But criticisms were raised this week about U-Map, the European Commission's project to categorise every European university under a single classification system.

Critics have warned that the plan could "pigeonhole" universities, restricting their development during a period of rapid change, and lead to a dramatic shake-up of the student market across Europe.

Concerns have also been raised about the validity of the data collected for the system.

Earlier this summer, Ray Land, professor of higher education at the University of Strathclyde, organised a conference on U-Map under the title "Towards a Classification of European Higher Education".

He told Times Higher Education that while the system could have obvious benefits in promoting diversity and raising the Continent's global profile as the European Higher Education Area shapes up, there had to be a proper debate about its potential effects.

He added: "This project has been endorsed by European ministers of education and the European Commission is putting large sums of money into it, but there's not really been any discussion about it in the UK. Why not?"

U-Map emerged from an August 2005 report, Institutional Profiles - Towards a Typology of Higher Education Institutions in Europe, part of a project led by the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

The U-Map team said the system "will not rank institutions league table-style, but will position them on a number of dimensions, each representing an aspect of function and performance".

Six dimensions have been proposed: the educational profile (looking at degree levels and the subject areas covered); the student profile (including total enrolments and part-time numbers); research involvement (measuring research income, peer-reviewed publications and the like); involvement in knowledge transfer (judged by elements such as patents and licensing income); international orientation (including a measure for overseas academic staff); and regional orientation.

Pros and cons

Professor Land said that the classification would have clear benefits. "It would allow you to compare like with like," he said. "You would not compare Harvard University with Broken-Neck College, Missouri, for example. It will provide information that is more useful and relevant."

But he added that there were pros and cons, as "there will always be unintended consequences".

He suggested that once an institution had been categorised, funding agencies and other stakeholders could start treating it according to that classification.

"They may say that as you are an X kind of university, you should not be investing in Y and Z," he said.

"Some universities might not like to be categorised, or have their wings clipped in any direction. If you are entrepreneurial, you will not want to be pigeonholed. For that reason, the classifications would need to be kept under review."

This concern is shared by Universities UK. A spokesman for the body said: "The proposed typology may not sufficiently reflect the dynamic of change. Higher education sectors are not static, and Europe's diverse institutions change their status and missions.

"The challenges of globalisation and increased competition have led to institutions developing innovative courses in areas where previously there had not been demand. These continuing changes may affect an institution's place in the system."

UUK also has concerns about the standards of U-Map's information.

"Decision-makers could allocate funding on the basis of the typology's potentially unreliable and unsubstantiated data," the spokesman added.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ think-tank, was more damning.

She said: "The proposed classifications have all the arbitrary factors of any league table and will not assist the European research base or European Union institutions to compete globally."

Professor Land also said that U-Map could possibly have significant effects on the student market. "It is unknown territory," he said. "It could have a market effect. For example, UK students might start to see courses taught in English in Europe as a better option.

"They may see that it is cheaper to do a similar degree course with a better reputation in Sweden than in the UK. It alters the rules of engagement."

But he added that the status quo may also act as a "crutch" for some institutions, so change could be welcome.

"You will get a case where a university says, 'OK, we're 78th in this league table, but we can never match the resources of those at the top.' But if they perform badly against a university just like theirs, they have no excuses. There is no hiding place. That might help institutions raise their game."

The Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions was more positive.

Wendy Piatt, its director-general, said she "welcomed" publications that improved information for students, and was pleased that the plan "tries to move away from fixed hierarchies to capture huge and positive diversity".

But she added: "We need to wait for more details to determine exactly how useful the classification will be."

phil.baty@tsleducation.com

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