Are University rankings really true?

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View of a university in Dubai's Knowledge City.

A number of lists are coming out, revealing the top-most, middle tier and those that fall at the end of the list.

These lists are none other than university ranking sheets, which have garnered more attention recently, with all coming out at around the same time.

Students generally follow these, comparing each university with another. But now a certain section of the public is questioning their authenticity. Ranking can be variable. Each ranking institution has a given criteria to rate and give points accordingly. This criterion would normally differ from other ranking institutions. So in this case, who do we follow?

Last month, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings were announced followed by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings which was released last week. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings will be released next month.

In the rankings arena international institutions and programmes are pitted against each other using various criteria to determine the top institutions.

These top universities especially business schools use the rankings results that affirm their superiority in their marketing drives to attract the best students. For many it’s a deciding factor when selecting a school or programme. However, not all academics see rankings in a positive light. A case of sour grapes, you may ask? Not necessarily.

ONE DIMENSIONAL

Although UAE University (UAEU) was ranked 338th in the QS rankings a feat for the UAE as it was the only institution from the country on the list UAEU provost Prof Wyatt Rory Hume concedes the rankings can be one-dimensional.

“The main shortcoming of rankings as I see it is that they do not take into account different natures among tertiary institutions. Research intensive universities are, in all of the major rankings, the only type considered worthy of inclusion.”

Other valuable tertiary institutions in a society community colleges, liberal arts universities and comprehensive polytechnics that don’t have a research mission are ignored by rankers, he added. Not all universities should be research focused. The Higher Colleges of Technology, for example, seeks to excel by quite different criteria, “and does not, and should not in my view, seek a ranking by QS,” Hume declared.

British University in Dubai (BUID) registrar Dr Martin Prince told Gulf News why he doesn’t like rankings: “Part of the problem is that different ranking methodologies place different emphasis on various indicators research, teaching, student numbers and there are question marks about this methodology.”

Prince says rankings don’t take into account young universities or those that are teaching only institutions, but still people read too much into rankings and get the wrong impression.

“Rankings are useful for people like me, educationalists, employers and university professionals because they prompt us to think about strengthening links with the right players. But for parents and students they are less useful.”

Dr Omar Hefni, President of University of Dubai, also believes rankings are one-dimensional. He points out that rankings themselves can be expensive for schools to provide. “Schools can’t afford not to participate, and many have had to hire additional staff to respond to the increasing number of media requests for data.” Also, data reported to and published by the media are inconsistent. “The lack of formal definitions and verification processes, combined with the highly visible and influential role of data in rankings, has been a recipe for highly implausible data.”

“I believe that students should not rely on rankings when selecting a university,” Professor John Grainger, pro vice chancellor and executive vice president of Murdoch University Dubai, toldGulf News.

FLAWED RESULTS

“Most university ranking organisations are commercial operations, working in the interests of their shareholders and not the university students, and this fact lends itself to a biased process and flawed results.”

For business schools and MBA programmes, rankings have a lot more weight. Nick Van der Walt, who heads up the Hult International Business School in Dubai, can cite several rankings tables in which the university appears.

However, true excellence, he says, has several dimensions including rankings, accreditations, engagement with industry, contribution to education and society, and relevance and substantive managerial leadership experience of the faculty, among others.

Rankings may be flawed, but they have their uses when used in combination with review processes and accreditation, said Hume.

What people should take into account is excellence, Prince insists, is “word of mouth, teaching excellence, good programmes that encourage enquiry, understanding and expertise that make students feel like they are part of a learning community all matter.” He added that more important than rankings for parents, students and employers in the UAE is to determine if institutions are bona fide and this can be done by looking at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research’s Commission for Academic Accreditation webpage. Talking to alumni and looking at the subjects covered in programmes to see if they are relevant are also important.

“Even if you look at UK ranking tables, it’s for the whole university. Students need to look at subject areas and not just the whole university,” said Professor Ammar Kaka, vice principal and Dean of the Dubai campus of Heriot-Watt University.

MIDDLE EAST EXCELLENCE

Even with these varied opinions on rankings, universities in the region are definitely striving for the best in academics. With positive ratings, they are gearing up their act to move quickly to the top.

The World University Rankings for 2011 are an early test of Middle Eastern plans for academic excellence. They show that the region, from Turkey to Morocco and the Gulf, has 34 universities in the 742 that we rank. At about one in 20 of the total, this group far exceeds the Middle Easts share of world population. There are also five ranked Israeli universities, which for political reasons are highly disconnected from the rest of the regions educational culture.

The most heavily-publicized university ambitions in the Middle East belong toSaudi Arabia, and their success is seen in the seven Saudi universities in our rankings. These include King Saud University at number 200 in the WUR, and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals at 221. These two are the regions top-ranking universities by some distance.

More striking is the progress which these seven are making in the QS World University Rankings. UmmAl-Qura University is still in the 501-550 band. But King Faisal and King Khalid universities are new entrants.

The University of Cambridge retained the leading place in the 2011QS World University Rankings. QS, founded in 1990, has established itself as the leading global provider of specialist higher education and careers information and solutions.

Sources: Gulfnews, topuniversities, Qs, Universityworldnews

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