What might Covid-19 mean for the World University Rankings?

The roll-out of the next THE rankings methodology will be delayed, but the pandemic’s potential impact on the results of the league tables is less clear, says Duncan Ross

April 30, 2020
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Editor's note: This article refers to methodological updates to the THE World University Rankings. Our ‘WUR 3.0’ methodology has now been confirmed, and you can read details about it here.


The topic of this month’s blog was meant to be on the subject of subjects – how we assess disciplines, which disciplines we assess and how this might change in our new World University Rankings methodology. But as is the case with many organisations, the Covid-19 crisis has changed our focus. So instead I’m going to discuss the timing of the new methodology and what the pandemic might mean for future editions of our rankings.

We have been talking about the potential changes we might implement in our new methodology – WUR 3.0 – for more than a year now. Our initial plan was to complete the consultation in time to announce the new model at our World Academic Summit in Toronto in September. We had then planned to start data collection over the autumn while consulting further on the weightings of the chosen metrics, with a view to publishing the first ranking under the new methodology in 2021.

But in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on higher education, we don’t think this is the time to ask institutional research teams and data providers at universities to do additional work.

We have, therefore, decided to delay implementation of any changes until the 2023 World University Rankings, which will be published in 2022. This will give us more time to discuss and consult on the potential changes (probably over Zoom).

The pandemic also raises questions about our current cycle of rankings and how the changes universities are facing might affect the results.

Rankings in 2020

Data collection for the next edition of the World University Rankings – the 2021 edition – is almost complete. As always, we’re very grateful for the university teams who pulled the data together, but we are especially grateful in these difficult times.

The relevant data period for most of the metrics occurred before the current crisis took hold. For bibliometric data, we include publications from 2015 to 2019 and citations from 2015 to the present.

Institutional data submitted by universities date to the closest university year to 2018. This varies based on the academic year in different university systems, but will usually mean 2018-19. The reputation data used were collected in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The same data periods are used in our upcoming Latin America, Reputation and Subject rankings in this cycle.

Rankings in 2021

Next year’s World University Rankings (the 2022 edition) will, however, be based on data that overlap with the current situation.

My initial thoughts are that the bibliometric data will probably see only a small change. Only papers that are cited very rapidly are likely to have an impact on universities’ scores. Of course, one area where this will certainly be the case is in research around Covid-19. A huge number of new research projects and collaborations have been established in response to the pandemic. We can expect to see this reflected in an increased number of publications at universities with medical specialisms, although the field-weighted citation impact measure should dampen this to an extent.

Reputation data may also change. Universities that are able to continue research projects may see higher visibility, as will those perceived to be working on the Covid-19 crisis. The work being done at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, for example, is very visible at the moment.

Looking beyond 2021

Other data would be affected only in the subsequent year when we might be moving to a new, or adjusted, methodology.

By the 2023 World University Rankings (published in 2022), we will begin to see the impact that the crisis has had on universities’ proportion of international students, staff and collaborations – metrics that together make up 7.5 per cent of the current methodology. There is no doubt that international student numbers will drop, although how far and for how long is uncertain. This will hit Australian and UK universities especially strongly – but the effect will vary between countries and institutions.

We also expect to see changes on both income and research output – but again, it is hard to say what the effect might be at this stage. Will governments give universities the support that they need to survive? Will new ways of working thrive? Will there be new winners, or will there be a consolidation of existing leading universities?

A bigger question might be, should we pause the rankings until the new normal asserts itself? I think not, for two reasons. First, the data will tell us a lot about how universities cope with this difficult period; it will be (however imperfect) a record of the changes wrought on the higher education sector. Second, life will go on. Students will still want to make the best possible choice for their education, even if that means enrolling at an institution abroad. And there will still be demand for the data that sit beneath the rankings – whether on the current methodology or on an improved one.

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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