Establishing mechanisms for measuring institutions as complex as universities is never easy. A university is, in many ways, not a single entity at all. What is its primary purpose? Research? If so, is that fundamental or applied? Teaching? Then is it aimed at preparing people for the world of work, for careers as researchers or to expand people’s awareness? Nation-building? Well, that depends on the nation. In practice, it can be all these at once – or something else entirely.
So trying to establish a set of measures that spans the world effectively is challenging. We hope that the World University Rankings go some way towards that. But as we move to a more focused geography, perhaps we can start to develop measures that are more specific – that capture common features that are shared across a sub-set of nations and their systems.
In the case of Times Higher Education, we have a starting point: the World University Rankings, which are based on three core datasets:
- Institutional data collected directly from universities
- Reputation data from a survey of academics
- Bibliometric data obtained from Elsevier
I have discussed the challenges with bibliometric data in Latin America – the fact that there are relatively few institutions that publish above our world rankings’ threshold of 1,000 papers over five years and our desire to engage with a wider range of institutions that have a wider range of missions.
But we can also look at the institutional data that we collect. Unlike some other organisations, we believe that it is important to collect data directly from universities with their active participation in the process. This enables the university to ensure that the data fit the criteria that we specify. It also means that the university itself is guaranteeing the values it provides.
It requires some time and effort to encourage universities to submit the data, but we think it is worth it; and the fact that many hundreds of institutions across the world take the time to work with us on data collection suggests that they do, too.
The system also allows us to work in partnership with universities to capture information that is not available from any other source and to develop pioneering performance indicators.
We are often asked about ways of measuring the great work that universities do in terms of the social impact they provide. When you look at Latin America, that’s certainly the case.
The recently announced Latin American Social Innovation Network project is a good case in point. Universities in Latin America often straddle social divides, and provide real opportunities for development and growth – surely we can find some way to measure that and reflect it in the ranking?
Another area that works well overall but may not be as appropriate for Latin America is the measure of “international outlook”, looking at the proportion of international students and staff on campus. There is strong evidence that, overall, a diverse, international student body and faculty make for a richer learning environment.
But when we think of universities operating within a specific national system, where the key elements of diversity come from within their own society, and where the ability to pay back into the growth of their society is key, different forces may come into play. Where, in the World University Rankings, we view internationalisation as a simple linear model – the higher the ratio, the better – we may need to reassess our metrics for Latin America (and possibly some other regions – the Middle East and North Africa, for example). There, the relationship is not rectilinear, and perhaps we need to explore a peak proportion of international students and staff. Or maybe we need to find completely new metrics for societal impact – ones that are specific to the region.
So there we have it – a first look at some of the areas we’re exploring as we develop a new approach to measuring the universities of Latin America. As always, we look forward to your input.
Director of data and analytics,
Times Higher Education
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