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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/ 9/2009

A New World Ranking Of Top Universities--And Why Such Lists Are Nonsense

By Valerie Strauss

There is sure to be angst in some education quarters now that a new list of top universities around the world has just been published in Britain--and American schools did not do as well as they did last year.

This is the sixth annual edition of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. It was assembled from responses sent in by a record number of employers --3,281 -- and 9,386 academics.

As compared to last year, here as some of the results:
*Harvard remains on top
*Cambridge is No. 2, ahead of Yale.
*University College London moves up to 4th place, ahead of Oxford
*Princeton University returns to the top 10.... But the number of North American universities in the top 100 drops from 42 last year to 36 this year.
*The number of Asian universities goes up from 14 to 16, and the number of European universities rises from 36 to 39.

Here are the top schools in this ranking:

1) Harvard University
2) Cambridge University
3) Yale University
4) University College London
5) Imperial College London
6) Oxford University
7) University of Chicago
8) Princeton University
9) Massachusetts Institute of Technology
10) California Institute of Technology
11) Columbia University
12) University of Pennsylvania
13) Johns Hopkins University
14) Duke University
15) Cornell University
16) Stanford University
17) Australian National University
18) McGill University
19) University of Michigan
20) Swiss Federal Institute of Technology


The Answer Sheet thinks these lists have no merit. Educational psychologist Gerald Bracey, who studies education statistics, was being kind when he called this list “nonsense.”

Here’s why:

1) The biggest weight is given to peer review, meaning that academics rank the reputation of other schools. This is an entirely subjective measure. (Peer review also is given the most weight in the U.S. News & World Report annual college rankings.)

2) We have no idea who the respondents are. And it is unlikely they all know very much about every school ranked.

3) One of the factors considered is the number of citations per faculty member. In fact, University College London outperformed Oxford, it was noted by the listings, in terms of citations. A citation is when one academic work "cites" the work of somebody else as having helped inform the author. This is no way to judge a university; some authors are liberal with citations, others aren't, and the number alone tells nothing about the quality of the work.

4) The number of North American universities in the top 100 dropped by six, but did you notice how many U.S. schools were in the top 20? Thirteen.

5) Why should employers be given a voice in this ranking? They presumably know the schools that graduate students in their own domain, but why would they know about any others?

6) Educational quality cannot always be quantified.

7) As Bracey noted: “I do note that UK universities are more likely to finish high than they were in another set of rankings from China about a year ago. And it’s a UK study. Hmmm.”

8) He further says: “Even if we accept the rankings as valid, is a fall from 42 to 36 ‘dramatic?’ As I have pointed out in too many publications than I care to recount, small differences in scores can results in huge differences in rankings (e.g., the running times of the guys who are in the final heat of the 100 meter race in the Olympics).”
Indeed, he said, “the scene gets more and more ridiculous.”

Here is a link to an article about the problems with university rankings.

When you see school rankings, do you think they have merit? Which ones and why or why not?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 9, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  international university rankings, university rankings  
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If the list is such nonsense, then why did you post a sampling of the results?

Posted by: manowitz | October 10, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

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