What do rankings data tell us about universities’ role in the pandemic?

Universities are under intense financial pressure but we should not ignore the outstanding work they are doing for the benefit of society, says Duncan Ross

June 16, 2020
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In April, I explored how the data we collect for our rankings may change as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. But now let’s look at things from a different angle: what can our rankings tell us about universities and their place during the pandemic?

There are things they can’t tell us. The human stories of loss won’t be present. Similarly, as rankings look backwards, we can’t directly see the pressures on universities or answer questions such as: will international students want, or be able, to return? Will individual universities even survive?

But we can use the data we have to establish some insights.

From the World University Rankings, we can understand how exposed universities may be to a likely reduction in international students. We also collect data on institutions’ financial stability.

If we look at our recently released Impact Rankings, we can also start to understand, or at least try to interpret, how universities may play a key role going forwards. The Impact Rankings are focused on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which give a surprisingly good framework for understanding universities’ potential impact in the ongoing pandemic.

Firstly, and for obvious reasons, let’s explore our table on SDG 3: good health and well-being.

There are four metrics I would like to look at:

  • Proportion of citations in clinical guidance
  • Proportion of students graduating in health-related professions
  • Health collaborations with government
  • Health outreach in the community

The first seems obviously relevant – are universities producing research that is used to directly inform clinical activities? While these citations won’t (yet) be directly relevant to the current situation they show universities that are strongly linked to active, practical clinical research.

Health collaborations and health outreach tell a similar story – universities that have built up these links and capabilities for other health issues are well poised to do the same for the Covid-19 pandemic.

And, of course, universities that educate our health professionals are providing the front-line troops in the fight against the disease.

If we look at the data from this year’s Impact Rankings, Iran University of Medical Sciences, China Medical University, Taiwan, Fujita Health University in Japan, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ireland and the University of Bologna in Italy are among the top performers for these health metrics.

But there are other aspects we could explore. Are universities ready to take on the very different approach to teaching and education that will be required? Some of our indicators for SDG 4: quality education point in that direction, and we may look to expand these in future years. 

We can also think about the economic role of universities. Our table on SDG 8: decent work and economic growth has several indicators that are useful.

The economic impact of a university on its region is one. Despite concerns about university finances, especially with respect to their reliance on international students, universities offer a degree of financial stability that other organisations may not have. Universities may become lynchpins of the economic viability of their cities and regions, offering both educational and economic advantages. We explore this by looking at university expenditure normalised by the regional GDP – essentially how important, economically, is a university to its region. 

Another aspect is the degree to which universities provide good quality employment. We asked universities to give us data on the number of their employees (not just academic staff) who were on secure contracts. This is a key area that points to whether universities have been able to protect the employment they offer.

We are already seeing that universities are under intense financial pressure as a result of the pandemic, with dire warnings about the potential fate of “less prestigious” universities. Commentators routinely use rankings to differentiate between “good” and “bad” institutions, but often without taking the time to dig deeper and explore the other missions that universities excel at.

When we look at SOAS University of London, for example, and just see an institution in financial difficulties, we ignore the brilliant work it is doing towards SDG 16: peace, justice and strong institutions.  Universities around the world deserve support. They are part of the mechanism by which the crisis will be addressed.

Do you have ideas about how we can improve our rankings? Send suggestions and questions to us at profilerankings@timeshighereducation.com.

Duncan Ross is chief data officer at Times Higher Education.

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