lundi 12 octobre 2009

It's academic: ranking the universities


This is always controversial. THE (Times Higher Education) annually ranks the world's top two hundred universities and also does more refined rankings - for example, the world's top two hundred universities for the arts and humanities. The University of Washington comes in at 146 for the arts and humanities, which probably sounds fairly mediocre until you begin to look at the list and realize how many prestigious institutions there are in the US, not to mention the world. Harvard comes in at number one, which it always does.

So what are these rankings based on? THE uses six indicators with differential weightings:


1. Academic Peer Review: 40%
Composite score drawn from peer review survey (which is divided into five subject areas). 9,386 responses in 2009 (6,354 in 2008). 40%

2.Employer Review Score based on responses to employer survey: 10%
3,281 responses in 2009 (2,339 in 2008).

3. Faculty Student Ratio Score based on student faculty ratio: 20%

4. Citations per Faculty: 20%
Score based on research performance factored against the size of the research body

5. International Faculty Score based on proportion of international faculty: 5%

6. International Students Score based on proportion of international students: 5%

As for the weightings, we learn that "they are assigned by Times Higher Education based on their opinion of the importance of the measured criteria balanced against the appropriateness of the indicator to evaluate the intended measure."

In other words, it's kind of subjective and primarily based on a questionnaire that is sent out to a selection of the world's academics. Notice that by far the most important criterion is academic peer review - in other words, academics voting on which universities they think are the best. Based on....? This year, there were 9,386 academics who completed and returned the questionnaire. Basically, they were asked to make a list of the 30 best universities in the world in their area of expertise. So this is an opinion poll or a popularity contest. They can't cite the university that employs them, but what is to prevent them from citing the one that awarded them the PhD or even the prestigious BA/BS that got them into grad school? What does any of this have to do with the quality of the education a student might hope to get? That is an open-ended question, by the way. It sure doesn't seem obvious to me.

In fact, when you look at some of the other criteria - the number of citations, for example - it is hard not to conclude that the old maxim of "publish or perish" has not lost any of its power to shape minds and dictate behavior, and that the quality of the teaching provided counts for absolutely nothing, unless a link can be made between teaching ability and the ability to write articles that get published and, once published, cited by others in one's field.

So forget about teaching and forget about research. Focus on getting published. Focus on publishing articles "dont l’écrasante majorité n’apportera pas grand-chose à notre savoir collectif mais dont la multiplication dans des revues « savantes » et confidentielles permettra d’asseoir pour les gagnants de ce nouveau jeu la notoriété, les primes et les promotions qui, désormais, y sont associées. Ainsi, un chercheur en sciences humaines devra renoncer à écrire des livres, qui ne sont pas recensés par les bases de données bibliographiques, mais tronçonner sa thèse à l’infini en ne gaspillant pas d’un coup ses munitions intellectuelles”. [Translation:"...the overwhelming majority of which will not offer much to our collective knowledge but whose multiplication in the academic reviews read only by the initiated few will, for the winners of this new fame game, provide the basis for the prizes and the promotions that are associated with it. Accordingly, a researcher in the humanities would be well advised to forget about writing books, which only get cited listed in bibliographic databases, and focus instead on endlessly cutting up and dishing out his or her thesis, so as not to spend all of his or her intellectual artillery in one shot".] Incidentally, the quotation comes from an article that was reccently published by French historian Jacques Marseille on the French educational system. The citation was provided by Pierre Assouline (see blog list on the left on his literary blog La république des livres, in an entry on this year's THE rankings.

Judging by this year's rankings, it looks as if higher education is a pretty good mirror of economic trends. The US continues to predominate, but the Asians are making a serious run. Among French universities, Pierre Assouline finds it amusing (and so do I) that La Sorbonne is ranked 21st and Ecole Normale Sup 45th. Well, it's true that everyone has heard of La Sorbonne, while outside of France ENS (whose graduates include modern intellectual luminaries such as Sartre, Foucault, Bergson, Aron, Durkheim...) is apparently not such a household name, even inside academia.

If you click on the title, you will see the rankings. For the global rankings, the top three are Harvard, Cambridge and Yale. What a surprise! Not. The UW comes in at 80, sandwiched in between the universities of Glasgow and Adelaide, while WSU (at 366) is just behind Portugal's Universiy of Coimbra and just ahead of the University of Showa in Japan. It seems to be tied with Université Paris V, Descartes.