Category Archives: University Studies

University rankings: past, present, future

College and university rankings have been in the news recently, both in the United States and around the world as the Times Higher Education (THE) released their World University Rankings for 2014-2015 on October 2nd. THE describes the ranking as “the only global university performance tables to judge world class universities across all of their core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” As usual, universities in the United States hold the top spots, with CalTech topping the list for the fourth year in a row, and Harvard and Stanford coming in second and third place.

Since the publication, countries around the world have taken note and interpreted the results in a variety of ways. The Washington Post reports that the rise in the ranking of Asian universities is “worrying” for the U.S, despite what the THE called the “utter domination” of US universities in the ranking, with U.S. schools earning 7 out of the top 10 positions. The Guardian called attention to the success of Switzerland’s universities in the ranking system, noting that for such a small country they tend to earn top positions. The Malay Mail Online raised questions about why Malaysian universities, which the country’s leaders claim are among the “best in the world,” opted out, noting their low ranking in years past. New Delhi TV pointed out that India now has two universities ranked in the top 300; however, Indian universities have yet to make it to the “definitive top 200.” The Irish Independent noted that the country’s two top universities slid in the rankings and attributed the drop to the country’s inadequate funding of higher education institutions. Similarly, tvnz.co.nz reports that the decline of New Zealand’s universities in the rankings is related to a lack of financial support.

While these recent news reports focus only on the most recent THE rankings, other ranking systems for higher education have been making the news as well — with a different set of results. For example, the QS ranking gave the top spot to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Malaysian universities do participate in this survey, with The Malaysian Insider reporting that the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) placed in the world’s top universities under 50 years old.

In the U.S., President Obama has introduced the idea that colleges ought to be rated according to measures that allow students and parents to understand the value of the education they receive there. In recognition of the fact that college tuition has skyrocketed over the past few decades, this rating system is being promoted (and debated) as one way to reduce the cost of college tuition, while also identifying the schools—and even subject areas—that will provide students with the most “bang for the buck.” While thinking of college primarily as an investment in a student’s financial (not intellectual) development might seem to miss what some might see as the point of an undergraduate educational experience, The New York Times recently reported that the American worker with a college degree now earns 74% more than their counterparts with only a high school diploma. David Deming, a Harvard professor who studies the economics of education, is quoted in the article as saying, “In the U.S., more so than in other countries, you as a family are making a larger and riskier investment in your own future…. College pays off on average but it has a ton of risk. Lower-income families can’t buffer that shock.” The fact that a college degree might have the potential to dramatically alter the trajectory of a person’s financial life, combined with the fact that income inequality is increasing in the United States, means that greater attention will be paid to colleges and universities that can prove themselves to be a healthy investment. To that end, the web-based professional networking company LinkedIn has now created its own ranking system—one that ranks universities based on career outcomes. Even H&R Block has created a chart linking college majors to individual earnings. The New York Times also released its own ranking, this one to measure economic diversity at the top colleges (with Vassar at the top of this list).

While all of this information can be head-spinning, there is still more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released their own ranking of jobs that will be most in demand in the future. According to this list, by the year 2022 the U.S. will need more than 3.2 million registered nurses; the jobs that will be least in demand are those that require advanced university degrees. Considering this information, and other sets of facts, the effort to rank the schools of today based on what will be needed in the world of tomorrow seems daunting.

Considering the history of university rankings in the United States, some say that the value of an education is indeed undefinable, and that therefore universities are unrankable. The following podcast offers some interesting history on higher education in the U.S. Here, educational historians share what they know about the U.S. government’s early efforts to rank colleges (with the first ranking system created in 1910, ranking 344 schools), and efforts to make a college education more affordable and “practical.” They raise questions about the purpose of a college education that might be applicable to our understanding of what is going on in the world of international university ranking systems today.

Deirdre Faughey

 
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Scan of Ed News: University Rankings, Curriculum, and Teacher Training

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Beyond the issues of protests, unions, and funding, which were highlighted in the first part of this monthly scan, part II brings together links to a number of recent articles and reports that touch on the kinds of issues raised by the latest Academic Reputation Survey.

Academic Reputation Survey

Each year, Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters sends an email to thousands of academics worldwide inviting them to participate in the annual Academic Reputation Survey, which aims to gain insight on the reputations of academic institutions within the academic community. While this method of ranking has been controversial, education news reports show that many countries take these rankings very seriously, making improvements to their education systems that they hope will elevate their national reputation on a global scale.

In their effort to produce the most college-ready students in the world, many countries are focused inward on issues such as language and curriculum, teacher training and evaluation, and school accountability, while also paying close attention to competitive outward measures.

Language Requirements in Higher Education

Of the top 20 schools, the only one from a non-English-speaking country is Japan’s University of Tokyo; all other schools are located in the US, the UK, Australia or Canada. Since 2006, Prime Minister Abe’s has focused on fostering “global talent to reverse the nation’s declining competitiveness on the world stage,” an effort that has led him to target English-language studies as an area of improvement. His plan would mandate that people reach certain scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to gain college admission, graduation, and to qualify for government jobs.

Seen in Beijing, a T-shirt mocking poorly spoken English. Photo: AFP

Seen in Beijing, a T-shirt mocking poorly spoken English. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, in China, a 2010 survey showed 80% of people polled agreed that there is a language crisis. “Because students devote more effort into passing English tests, they spend less time studying for courses for their major, dealing a ‘heavy blow’ to overall education,” said Zhang Shuhua, head of the Intelligence Research Academy. In March, some of China’s top universities dropped the requirement of an English test as part of their recruitment exams, yet over 40,000 Chinese students poured into Hong Kong to take the SAT exam, and the best are opting to study at foreign universities. This “brain drain” is a trend the leadership is seeking to reverse.

Similarly, Russia will begin testing foreign migrants in the Russian language and establish a “universal history textbook,” a fact that has many concerned. Education Minister Livanov said, “A history manual must not interpret events, but list a sequence of historical facts,” and indicated that it will be the teacher’s job to assess the facts and the logic behind them.

Teacher Training and Evaluation

REPORT CARD: While most schools have adequate numbers of classrooms, separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, the availability of playground, school ramp, kitchen shed and boundary wall remains a major challenge in many States. Photo: K.R. Deepak

REPORT CARD: While most schools have adequate numbers of classrooms, separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, the availability of playground, school ramp, kitchen shed and boundary wall remains a major challenge in many States. Photo: K.R. Deepak

In India, low test scores on basic math and literacy assessments have led to calls for a higher standard for teacher training. Yet, private schools, which many feel provide a superior education, do not offer their teachers the same level of training. According to child rights activist Vasudev Sharma, the disparity in teacher training “is one of the major differences between private and government schools,” yet parents continue to rely on the reputation of private schools.

In a similar move to raise the bar for teachers, Australia will require all future teachers to score in the top 30% of a literacy and numeracy test, and Scotland will require that teachers become content area specialists as well as pedagogues. Yet, as we have seen in Guatemala, efforts to enforce higher standards for teachers leads to concerns about exclusion. Ireland is pushing back against this notion. According to Education Minister Quinn, “a diverse society needs a diversity of teachers, not a ‘one size fits all’ approach which ‘streamlines a particular cohort into teaching’.” At the International Summit on the Teaching ProfessionJohn Bangs went a step further, stating that “a national teacher appraisal scheme is not essential to an education system’s success…. For appraisal to work, therefore, it must be valued by teachers and be seen as a welcome addition to their professional lives.” We have seen further examples of this notion in recent research conducted in Korea, Mexico, and India.

Data Manipulation

Phil Baty, Times Higher Education

Phil Baty, Times Higher Education

While teachers might struggle to see evaluations as essential to an educational system’s success, universities seem to have accepted the importance of the international ranking systems – so much so that they will go to extreme lengths. In response to the University of Cork’s recent attempt to manipulate the data, Phil Baty, editor of the international rankings of Times Higher Education, explained, “Global university rankings have become phenomenally influential in recent years – not only helping students to decide where to invest many thousands of dollars in tuition fees, but also in helping university leaders shape strategies and in helping governments to make multimillion-dollar funding decisions in some parts of the world.” Additionally, as seen in another recent example of educators manipulating data in the US, intense pressure to be successful within systems that value strict measures of evaluation can also lead to unintended outcomes.

Scotland

Analysis: from concept to classroom
Denholm, A.  The Herald (11 April 2012)

New research by Stirling University highlights that “there is still significant uncertainty over [Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellent (CfE)], even as 54,000 secondary pupils move towards the first exams in 2014.”  CfE’s purpose was to move education from the regurgitation of facts to “a new style of learning, better suited to the fast-changing modern economy which relies on creative thinking and resourcefulness.”  Focus has been on the early CfE curricular materials, which have been labeled “vague and confusing.”  (A summary of the Stirling University research can be found here; additional news about the study can be found here.)