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World university rankings an object lesson in being “elite”

October 9, 2009

The academic world is again abuzz with the release of the Times Higher Education – QS (THE-QS) World University Rankings. It’s a bit of a laughable exercise ranking universities, but there are interesting bits beyond “where did we rank?”.

First, though, where did you rank? The usual suspects top the list – Harvard, Cambridge and Yale occupy the top three spots again. Canadian universities in the top 200 include McGill (18th), UofT (29th), UBC (40th), UofA (59th), UdeM (107th), Waterloo (113th), Queen’s (118th), McMaster (143rd), Calgary (149th), Western (151st), and SFU (196th).

The THE-QS rankings, like all such attempts, face the challenge of quantifying something unquantifiable. They provide a breakdown on their methodology:

  • 40% of the score is based on peer assessment – researchers were asked to rank the top schools in their fields (surprisingly – and disconcertingly – the average number of institutions named by participants was only 13, despite being asked to name 30. Given the assumed high degree of overlap at the top of that list, the rankings of 25-200 are likely based on very few data points…);
  • 20% is dedicated to “research excellence” – number of citations divided by number of faculty – an understandably crude measure;
  • 20% is based on staff-student ratios, a measure of teaching “excellence”;
  • 10% is based on surveys of employers of university graduates – a measure of “employability”;
  • The remaining 10% is dedicated to the school’s “international character” – the proportion of international staff and students.

The weighting of these factors is obviously controversial, and leads to some incongruities. UBC’s neighbours at 40th place are UC Berkeley (US) and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). According to the rankings, these three universities are roughly equivalent. Well, no – Berkeley and UBC both have perfect scores in peer reputation, and both score very well in employability and citations. Berkeley and UBC suffer (disproportionately, I’d suggest) because of their low proportion of international staff and students, where EPFL receives a perfect score. Obviously, the rankings need to be taken with a wholesome measure of salt.

While it is easy to get worked up about perceived unfairness and inaccuracy – an anger somewhat justified given the self-fulfilling nature of reputation-based rankings – these inconsistencies are a feature of these lists. I’m not sure I agree that a school’s international character is reflective of its excellence – the fact that half of EPFL’s students come from outside Switzerland says more about the size of Switzerland than the school’s international reach.

Still, the bulk of the rankings are based on reputation among academic peers. There is interesting information when the peer rankings are broken down into specific academic fields. All three of McGill, UofT, and UBC are ranked in the top 25 in each of the five areas of expertise:

  • Engineering and IT: McGill 20th, UofT 8th, UBC 17th
  • Life Sciences and Biomedicine: McGill 10th, UofT 11th, UBC 16th
  • Natural Sciences: McGill 26th, UofT 14th, UBC 20th
  • Social Sciences: McGill 17th, UofT 15th, UBC 13th
  • Arts and Humanities: McGill 14th, UofT 11th, UBC 22nd

UofT outranks McGill in 4 of 5 categories, but still finishes well back in the overall standings. Berkeley’s case is even more egregious – it ranks in the top 5 universities in every single area of expertise, but is still ranked 39th overall. The Canadian universities should take pride in their high reputation in a variety of academic fields. McGill, UofT, and UBC all performed exceptionally well across all five areas of expertise (UofA appeared only in IT and Engineering at 46th place, and UdeM was absent from top 50 in all fields, suggesting the G5 might better be considered a G3…).

The “G5” schools are the top-ranking Canadian schools, and are all ranked in the top 100 schools internationally (except UdeM (107th), whose ranking slipped from 91st last year). This supports the G5 suggestion that they represent the best Canadian academia has to offer, and their relatively low ranking in the global order may lend credence to their contention that they aren’t yet considered amongst the global elite. Only McGill finished in the top 20 universities internationally (though it was one of only two of the top 20 that aren’t in either the US or the UK, no small accomplishment).

The G5 proposal implied that by distinguishing themselves from the rest of Canada’s universities, with commensurate funding increases, our top universities would be better positioned to compete internationally. A look at the details of the rankings, though, tells a different story. These schools are already performing comparably with the international elite in fundamental areas like research and teaching. They could improve in staff/student ratios, and more international character would improve the rankings. But most important for establishing themselves among the global elite is, unfortunately, a bit of a tautology: better reputations.

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