University ranking system under scrutiny

By Ralph Marnham

The university rankings that are announced each autumn have been met with increasing levels of attention from academic institutions around the world. When Cambridge beat Harvard for the number one spot in the QS World University Ranking System this September, they put out a press release. Likewise, when Harvard topped the Times Education Supplement two weeks later, it was their turn to boast.

However, the news that Alexandria was placed 147th on the list was cause for both celebration and puzzlement. The university website was quick to point out that it was the only Arab university in the world’s top 200. Researchers who looked behind the headlines noticed that the list also ranked Alexandria fourth in the world in a subcategory that weighed the impact of a university’s research – behind only Caltech, MIT and Princeton, and ahead of both Harvard and Stanford. Richard Holmes, who teaches at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, wrote on his University Ranking Watch blog that the overall result had been skewed by “one indicator, citations, which accounted for 32.5 percent of the total weighting.”

Phil Baty, deputy editor of the Times Higher Education supplement, acknowledged that Alexandria’s surprising prominence was actually due to “the high output from one scholar in one journal”. The academic was soon identified as Mohamed El Naschie, an Egyptian who published over 320 of his own articles in a scientific journal of which he was also the editor.

“The problem is we don’t know what we’re trying to measure,” said Ellen Hazelkorn, Dean of the Graduate Research School at the Dublin Institute of Technology and author of Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education, which is to be released this March. “We need cross-national comparative data that is meaningful. But we also need to know whether the way the data are collected makes it more useful or easier to game the system.”

Although this does demonstrate that rankings cannot be relied on, it does not seem to have diminished their popularity. It is undeniable that they have now become a permanent fixture in he educational landscape.