Monday, July 03, 2017

Proving anything you want from rankings

It seems that university rankings can be used to prove almost anything that journalists want to prove.

Ever since the Brexit referendum experts and pundits of various kinds have been muttering about the dread disease that is undermining or about to undermine the research prowess of British universities. The malignity of Brexit is so great that it can send its evil rays back from the future.

Last year, as several British universities tumbled down the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world rankings, the Independent claimed that “[p]ost-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues have seen storm clouds gather over UK higher education in this year’s QS World University Rankings”.

It is difficult to figure out how anxiety about a vote that took place on June 24th 2016 could affect a ranking based on institutional data for 2014 and bibliometric data from the previous five years.

It is just about possible that some academics or employers might have woken up on June 24th to see that their intellectual inferiors had joined the orcs to raze the ivory towers of Baggins University and Bree Poly and then rushed to send a late response to the QS opinion survey. But QS, to their credit, have taken steps to deal with that sort of thing by averaging out survey responses over a period of five years.

European and American universities have been complaining for a long time that they do not get enough money from the state and that their performance in the global rankings is undermined because they do not get enough international students or researchers. That is a bit more plausible. After all, income does account for three separate indicators in the Times Higher Education (THE) world rankings so reduced income would obviously cause universities to fall a bit. The scandal over Trinity College Dublin’s botched rankings data submission showed precisely how much a given increase in reported total income (with research and industry income in a constant proportion) means for the THE world rankings. International metrics account for 10% of the QS rankings and 7.5% of the THE world rankings. Whether a decline in income or the number of international students has a direct effect or indeed any effect at all on research output or the quality of teaching is quite another matter.

The problem with claims like this is that the QS and THE rankings are very blunt instruments that should not be used to make year by year analyses or to influence government or university policy. There have been several changes in methodology, there are fluctuations in the distribution of survey responses by region and subject and the average scores for indicators may go up and down as the number of participants changes. All of these mean that it is very unwise to make extravagant assertions about university quality based on what happens in those rankings.

Before making any claim based on ranking changes it would be a good idea to wait a few years until the impact of any methodological change has passed through the system

Another variation in this genre is the recent claim in the Daily Telegraph that “British universities are slipping down the world rankings, with experts blaming the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students.”

Among the experts is Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham who is reported as saying “universities are no longer free to take their own decisions and recruit the most talented students which would ensure top positions in league tables”.

There is certainly good evidence that British university courses are becoming much less rigorous. Every year reports come in about declining standards everywhere. The latest is the proposal at Oxford to allow students to do take home instead of timed exams.

But it is unlikely that this could show up in the QS or THE rankings. None of the global rankings has a metric that measures the attributes of graduates except perhaps the QS employers survey. It is probable that a decline in the cognitive skills of admitted undergraduate students would eventually trickle up to the qualities of research students and then to the output and quality of research but that is not something that could happen in a single year especially when there is so much noise generated by methodological changes.

The cold reality is that university rankings can tell us some things about universities and how they change over perhaps half a decade and some metrics are better than others but it is an exercise in futility to use overall rankings or indicators subject to methodological tweaking to argue about how political or economic changes are impacting western universities.

The latest improbable claim about rankings is that Oxford’s achieving parity with Cambridge in the THE reputation rankings was the result of  a positive image created by appointing its first female Vice Chancellor.

Phil Baty, THE’s editor, is reported as saying that ‘Oxford University’s move to appoint its first female Vice Chancellor sent a “symbolic” wave around the world which created a positive image for the institution among academics.’

There is a bit of a problem here. Louise Richardson was appointed Vice -Chancellor in January 2016. The polling for the 2016 THE reputation rankings took place between January and March 2016. One would expect that if the appointment of Richardson had any effect on academic opinion at all then it would be in those months. It certainly seems more likely than an impact that was delayed for more than a year. If the appointment did affect the reputation rankings then it was apparently a negative one for Oxford’s score fell massively from 80.4 in 2015 to 69.1 in 2016 (compared to 100 for Harvard in both years). 

So, did Oxford suffer in 2016 because spiteful curmudgeons were infuriated by an upstart intruding into the dreaming spires?

The collapse of Oxford in the 2016 reputation rankings and its slight recovery in 2017 almost certainly had nothing to do with the new Vice-Chancellor.

Take a look at the table below. Oxford’s reputation score tracks the percentage of THE survey responses from the arts and humanities. It goes up when there are more respondents from those subjects and goes down when there are fewer. This is the case for British universities in general and also for Cambridge except for this year.

The general trend since 2011 has been for the gap between Cambridge and Oxford to fall steadily and that trend happened before Oxford acquired a new Vice-Chancellor although it accelerated and finally erased the gap this year.

What is unusual about this year’s reputation ranking is not that Oxford recovered as the number of arts and humanities respondents increased but that Cambridge continued to fall.

I wonder if it has something to do with Cambridge’s “disastrous” performance in the THE research impact (citations) indicator in recent years.  In the 2014-15 world rankings Cambridge was 28th behind places like Federico Santa Maria Technical University and Bogazici University. In 2015-16 it was 27th behind St Petersburg Polytechnic University. But a greater humiliation came in the 2016-17 rankings. Cambridge fell to 31st in the world for research impact. Even worse it was well behind Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school. For research impact Cambridge University wasn’t the best university in Europe or England. It wasn’t even the best in Cambridge, at least if you trusted the sophisticated THE rankings.

Rankings are not entirely worthless and if they did not exist no doubt they would somehow be invented. But it is doing nobody any good to use them to promote the special interests of university bureaucrats and insecure senior academics.

Table: Scores in THE reputation rankings

% responses arts and

1 comment:

Karthi Keyan said...

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