University World News (UWN) has published an article by David Jobbins about QS Stars, which are awarded to universities that pay (most of them anyway) for an audit and a three year licence to use the stars and which are shown alongside the listings in the QS World University Rankings. Participation is not spread evenly around the world and it is mainly medioce universities or worse that have signed up according to a QS brochure. Nearly half of the universities that have opted for the stars are from Indonesia.
Jobbins refers to a report in Private Eye which in turn refers to the Irish Examiner. He writes:
The stars appear seamlessly alongside the listing for each university on the World University Rankings, despite protestations from QS that the two are totally separate operations.
The UK magazine Private Eye reported in its current issue that two Irish universities – the University of Limerick and University College Cork, UCC – had paid “tens of thousands” of euro for their stars.
The magazine recorded that UCC had told the Irish Examiner that the €22,000 (US$26,600) cost of obtaining the stars was worthwhile, as it could be recouped through additional international student recruitment.
The total cost for the audit and a three-year licence is US$30,400, according to the scheme prospectus.
The Irish Examiner article by Neil Murray is quite revealing about the motivation for signing up for an audit:
UCC paid almost €22,000 for its evaluation, which includes a €7,035 audit fee and three annual licence fees of €4,893. It was awarded five-star status, which it can use for marketing purposes for the next three years.
The audit involved a visit to the college by QS researchers but is mostly based on analysis of data provided by UCC on eight criteria. The university’s five-star rating is largely down to top marks for research, infrastructure, internationalisation, innovation, and life science, but it got just three stars for teaching and engagement.So now we know how much a single international student adds to the revenue of an Irish university.
About 3,000 international students from more than 100 countries earn UCC approximately €19 million a year.
UCC vice-president for external affairs Trevor Holmes said there are plans to raise the proportion of international students from 13% — one of the highest of any Irish college — to 20%.
"Should UCC’s participation in QS Stars result in attracting a single additional, full-time international student to study at UCC then the costs of participation are covered," he said.
"In recent times, unlike many other Irish universities, UCC has not been in a position to spend significant sums on marketing and advertising domestically or internationally. QS Stars represents a very cost-effective approach of increasing our profile in international media and online."
So far, there is nothing really new here. The QS Stars system has been well publicised and it probably was a factor in Times Higher Education dropping QS as its data collecting partner and replacing them with Thomson Reuters.
What is interesting about the UWN article is that a number of British and American universities have been given the stars without paying anything. These include Oxford and Cambridge and 12 leading American institutions that are described by QS as "independently audited based on publicly available information". It would be interesting to know whether the universities gave permission to QS to award them stars in the rankings. Also, why are there differences between the latest rankings and the QS brochure? Oxford does not have any stars in last year's rankings but is on the list in the brochure. Boston University has stars but is not on the list. It may be just a matter of updating.
It would probably be a good idea for QS to remove the stars from the rankings and keep them in the university profiles.