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European university lobby: Rankings are biased

Rankings focus too much on elite universities, and they are biased towards natural sciences and English-speaking countries. This leads to skewed policies, shows critical report

Universities which publish in English, and those that excel in the fields of science, engineering and medicine find it a lot easier to score high on rankings. This is according to a report from by the European University Association (EUA).

Rankings have become more important to universities, but their influence and methodologies have come under increasing scrutiny: Measuring how ‘good’ a university is, can be tricky. Picking a particular set of parameters for ranking a university can radically influence the university’s position. The report sheds light on the process by which universities are ranked, and illustrates problems posed by different ranking systems.

The report states that “…methodologies used by the main global rankings are not geared to covering large numbers of higher education institutions, and thus cannot provide a sound basis for analysing entire higher education systems” .

Impactful literature

An undue focus on elite universities is a general feature of currently employed ranking systems, the report argues.

For example, the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy (SRC), uses the number of Nobel Prize winners, and papers published in Nature and Science to rank universities. Smaller universities, with no Nobel laureates among their staff or alumni, are going to be underrepresented by such an index. The SRC ranks University of Copenhagen as 44th in the world for 2012.

Another factor commonly used by global rankings includes a survey in which academics are asked to nominate 10 to 30 universities that are the best in the field. The practical implication of such a methodolgy is that many universities — namely ones that are not mentioned by anyone as being in their top-30 list — would not be represented at all.

English favoured

Other issues brought up by the report, include the “relative neglect of arts, humanities and social sciences”, as well as the omission of publications in languages other than English.

Most scientific output – natural science research, as well as publications from the fields of medicine and engineering – takes place in academic journals in the form of articles, while in the arts and social sciences, most academic work is concentrated in books. The question of the impact of a book publication is still untackled, and as a result, fields which publish in journals tend to have a bigger influence on a university’s ranking.

Publications written in English are more widely read, and cited, than ones written in any other language; as a result non-English output from universities tends to have lower position in the rankings. The current solution is to exclude non-English publications altogether, which clearly favours universities in countries with English as a primary language, the European University Association report argues.

Scoring points

The use of rankings by universities and politicians can skew policies: They have effects on funding, and numbers of applicants. University rankings are often used by officials in setting immigration policies, and by universities themselves to evaluate the eligibility of partner institutions.

Denmark and the Netherlands are mentioned in the report as examples of the political influence of rankings. In Denmark, points are awarded to putative immigrants based partly on the ranking of their home university.

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