6 October 2011
Andrew Oswald teases out key lessons from the 2011-12 rankings - including the enduring strength of the anglophone academy, the beauty of specialisation and the inescapable importance of wealth
Meritocrats should approve of university league tables. Such rankings are disliked by old, important universities. They are liked by the young, the ambitious, the up and coming.
The publication of a league table can shake up an old order in a socially valuable way and thus squirt a bit of honesty into a rusty status quo that prefers no questions asked. For example, France recently changed its laws after French universities did poorly in world rankings.
But those league tables have to be constructed well; it is sensible to keep them, psychologically, in perspective. Above all, it is surely best for us to recall that the task of a university is to achieve interesting things for humanity, not to be number two or 222 in a league table (don't forget that even number 22,222 is still making a contribution to improving lives).
Interest in rank runs deep in Homo sapiens.
In 2007, a young man called Armin Falk and a group of German colleagues slid people into a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. He found something so remarkable but simple that the work quickly appeared in the journal Science.
The paper had an unsettling title: "Social comparison affects reward-related brain activity in the human ventral striatum".
In everyday English, the researchers discovered that as they varied the relative standing of their human subjects in the laboratory, they observed marked changes in the blood flow to certain parts of their subjects' brains.
It appeared that people were enjoying the sheer pleasure of being ahead of the lab rat pack. This, presumably, is why Schadenfreude has from the start been one of the few foreign words that can be typed into Microsoft Word without a chiding red wiggle appearing.
Human beings are thus deeply interested in league tables. One can complain about that and implore people to be different and more mature, but, as the human race is not perfectible, we are stuck with it.
Rich lists. The Premier League. Best 100 Hospitals. Miss World. Olympic medals of three different colours. High-school league tables. Formula One podiums. Fastest cars. Slimmer of the Year. Fattest Person of the Year. Goal of the Week, Month, Year, Decade, Ever. CBE, MBE, FlyBe.
In many cases, there are sound reasons for humans to be like this: sometimes information is needed and significant things are ranked. Few would dispute that the quality of universities matters. They are in the truth business, and there are no alternative suppliers in that particular line.
Corporations, pressure groups, government departments, churches, professional associations, trade unions and the rest all play a fundamental role in society; but none sticks up disinterestedly for the truth, because all have axes, whether small or large (and whether they acknowledge those axes or not), to burnish. They know what answers their organisations will tolerate.
By contrast, the university does not. It is the only institution in society that is dedicated to the business of discovering the painful truth without a prior bias in favour of answer Blue or answer Red. That is why dictators sometimes close them and why university quality assessments, if they measure real quality, can be a bulwark for society.
Yes, university degrees are a badge of relative status, and there is a certain amount of unhealthy zero-sum character to newspaper rankings. These things explain why academics get cross about league tables and why the issue of Times Higher Education containing these rankings will sell widely. But degrees are not just that: they have substantive content, too.
I draw five main thoughts from the results of the latest THE World University Rankings.
One is that our world must have something to learn from the striking numerical dominance of English-speaking - and particularly US - universities at the upper end of the table.
Of the top 50, an extraordinary 42 are in anglophone countries (compare that with big well-off countries such as Germany that speak other languages). This is either an error caused by our implicit biases in favour of that language, or it is telling us something powerful that we do not fully understand.
Second, special can be beautiful. In particular, if the California Institute of Technology performs this strongly, why are institutions of that style so comparatively rare? We need more of that ilk.
Third, one country stands out importantly in a way that might be overlooked if you are in a rush: Switzerland. What a result. Eight million people (not far off one-fortieth the size of the US), yet three of its universities sit among the top 70 in the world. This is almost certainly because Switzerland puts plenty of resources into research, development and brainpower.
Fourth, it is natural to think that universities ought to be judged on a mixture of qualities, because they are partly research machines and partly teaching machines, and judged largely on current achievements, not ones from decades back. In these senses, the THE tables are admirable. They are neither narrow nor dated.
Fifth, there remain doubts in my mind about THE's use of citations per paper in its indicator "Citations - research influence".
It is certainly natural to use data on citations (the number of times other scholars mention my work or yours) as a measure of the research output of a university, and we do need some normalisation to adjust for the size of different universities.
However, economists and managers - and most other folk in the world - define productivity as output divided by the number of employees.
So if we think of the sheer arithmetical definition of productivity, we have this useful little formula: citations per researcher = (citations per paper) x (papers per researcher).
The World University Rankings use citations per paper alone. Hence, highly productive universities (in the sense that they produce lots of papers per researcher) are at a disadvantage. Most economists who look at the tables will wonder why citations per researcher were not used instead.
Why do some nations have such fine universities? Some put larger shares of their gross domestic product into university education, but it cannot be that alone.
The Russell Group of large research-intensive UK universities recently said of data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: "Looking just at public expenditure on higher education, the UK's investment of 0.6 per cent of GDP is one of the lowest in the OECD (the average is 1.0 per cent).
"The UK's total expenditure on higher education amounts to just 1.2 per cent of its GDP - a figure that is outpaced not only by the US at more than 3 per cent, but also by Australia and Canada, Korea and Japan."
Eurostat data show that Italy spends only 0.8 per cent of its GDP on higher education. Yet Denmark spends more than 2 per cent, Sweden puts in 1.9 per cent and Finland 2 per cent.
Plenty of presidents and prime ministers will look at these THE tables and grumble; they will worry about their countries and ask what can be done.
A university that aims to go up the rankings will find it expensive. Even on salaries alone, a decently performing nation such as the UK is not terribly competitive internationally compared with the US.
The University of Cambridge, for example, says on its website: "The base annual salary for a professor is £64,637. In addition there are four contribution bands, each made up of six steps, taking the maximum professorial salary at the top of Band 4 to £131,395."
At the major US universities, salaries are confidential. However, some information is available for the big state institutions. For instance, the easily found website of economist Daniel Hamermesh lists the salaries of individual economics professors in public US universities. For the top 17 such institutions, the average nine-month salary is approximately £130,000; their biggest names earn more than £200,000.
By repute, and rather plausibly given their vast endowments, the best private universities offer considerably more.
So even Cambridge pays only around the middle of the distribution of the good but not outstanding US universities. This suggests that if it wishes to compete for elite researchers with the top-paying and top 30 US universities, it may have to raise its salaries, admittedly at the rare end of the ability distribution, by a fair amount.
Moreover, most universities in the wider world pay much less than Cambridge, and do not have its long and famous background. For them to attract star professors would presumably be even harder and more expensive. Research labs come even dearer.
As someone once put it, fame costs.
Andrew Oswald is professor of economics, University of Warwick, and visiting Fellow, IZA Institute, Bonn