by Ben Sowter
Part of the excitement of university and business school rankings is that there is no “ultimate solution”. At a symposium at Griffith University in 2007, Nian Cai Liu – who leads Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (www.arwu.org) was posed the question, “Many rankings use surveys as a component of their methodology, why do you choose not to?”. His matter of fact response was “I’m an Engineer”.
But his team’s selection of Nobel Prizes or Highly Cited Authors as indicators are not intrinsically less questionable as measures of university quality in the round – which regardless of stated purpose, the results are often being used for. Three days ago at a comparable event in Madrid, organised by Isidro Aguillo and his Cybermetrics team, similar aspersions were cast on surveys in contrast with more “statistically robust” measures such as link analysis – as used for the Webometrics exercise (www.webometrics.info). The supposition was made that simply because the THE-QS exercise is the most “geographically generous” of the four global aggregate rankings, it must be some how wrong. And that maybe survey bias is to blame for that.
Well I have news for you. THEY ARE ALL WRONG.
The higher profile of universities in China and Hong Kong in THE-QS was cited as evidence for survey bias – whilst it is well-documented on our website that the survey response from China, in particular, is disproportinately low. We are working to remedy this, but it is clearly unlikely to strongly favour Chinese institutions – these universities are perfoming well due to the profile they are building outside China.
Despite the fact that these surveys are currently only conducted in English and Spanish, the survey compenents offer a much reduced language bias than seems to be implied from Nobel Prizes, citations (in any index), cybermetrics, publications in Nature & Science, highly cited authors and many other factors selected by other international evaluations. Respondents, even those responding in English, are cogniscent of the performance of other institutions in their own language – and this seems to be coming through in the results.
Sure, there are biases in the surveys, and the system overall – some are partially corrected for and some are not, but these exist in every other system too even if they may not be quite as immediately evident.
The THE-QS work is presented prolifically around the world – by myself, my colleagues, the THE and third-parties. We present it alongside the other exercises and are always careful to acknowledge that each has its value and each, including our own, has its pitfalls. NONE should be taken too seriously, and to date ALL bear some interest if viewed objectively.
The most entertaining input I have received since conducting this work came from an academic that systematically discredited all of the indicators we have been using but then concluded that, overall, he “liked what we were doing”. It is possible to do that with any of the systems out there – domestic, regional or global. The most savvy universities are using the rankings phenomenon to catalyze and establish keener performance evaluation internally at a faculty, department and individual staff member level. Driving it down to this level can help build actionable metrics as opposed to abstract statisitics and this can lead to a university being able to revolutionise their performance in education and research, and in time, as a side-effect rather than an objective, improve their performance in rankings.