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University of Copenhagen
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Rector: This is how we feel about university rankings

Opinion — The University of Copenhagen has one eye on the international rankings and one eye on their inherent limitations. Their influence is, however, undeniable.

Rankings are like weather forecasts. Many people discuss them, even more people disagree with them, and very few people trust them. Still, we cannot completely ignore them. The debate over the ranking system’s merits has raged for years. Many rankings lack transparency, just like their methodology is subject to criticism. Professor Ellen Hazelkorn from the Dublin Institute of Technology, an expert in the field, has the following piece of advice to offer on the subject of rankings: Don’t mind them.

Never-the-less, people do mind them. Politicians and employers use them as a way to attract top graduates. The international community of researchers and students use them to screen an ever-growing global educational field consisting of some 20,000 universities. Finally, the universities themselves use the rankings to determine the amount on the price tag for an education (high ranking equals high prices), as well as in their strategic work where, according to Hazelkorn, more then half of all university heads use rankings to justify their decision making.

And just how are things looking for the University of Copenhagen? From 2011 to 2019, the university climbed three positions on three of the four most influential lists: Academic Ranking of World Universities, CWTS Leiden, and Times Higher Education. Only on Quacquarelli Symonds has the university’s ranking gone down. UCPH is typically ranked between the 50-100 best universities in the world, the ten best in Europe, and at the very top of the list in Northern Europe and Denmark.

The success in recent years is even more remarkable considering the rapid advance of Chinese universities who have become experts in the STEM-field. According to The Economist, China has doubled investments in research and development ten times over since the year 2000—and the results are starting to show. From 2013 to 2016, Tsinghua University produced the majority of the top one percent of most cited articles in math and computer science.

What does this mean for us?

The University of Copenhagen’s current ranking on the Times Higher Education-list has resulted in criticism of the university’s capabilities. In the most recent tally, UCPH was ranked as the 101st best university in the world—an impressive development from 2011 when the university came in at 177.

But is that enough when for instance Cambridge occupies the position as fourth best? It is tempting to answer no, but please remember that the two universities operate under different circumstances. Cambridge’s budget, a fortune of more than 50 billion kroner, is close to double the amount available to UCPH, and the university employs close to 900 researchers who teach a student population about half the size of the student population at UCPH. For centuries, Cambridge has benefitted from a brand with global reach similar to that of Oxford. UCPH is an outstanding research university based in a Scandinavian welfare society which offers an education free of charge to everyone.

Princeton University’s Law School received a top ranking on an American list. The only problem was that Princeton has no such school.

Generally speaking, UCPH tends to do better on lists that rank based on bibliometrics—and conversely poorer on lists where surveys of academic and educational quality among international researchers figure. Researchers who work with surveys can testify to the fact that you have to be careful making definitive interpretations based on that kind of data, because they know the common pitfalls of surveying a complex field like academic and educational quality: the choice of respondents, percentage of submission, uncertainties as to what is being asked in the survey.

Fame is an important factor when measuring reputation via surveys and is also self-reinforcing in a way that benefits established brands like Oxbridge and the Ivy League universities. Supposedly, a few years ago, Princeton University’s Law School received a top ranking on an American list. The only problem was that Princeton has no such school.

With regard to rankings, the University of Copenhagen has taken a pragmatic approach. There are no quick solutions to boost the university’s ranking, but students, researchers, and other employees can help promote the university by for instance using our name and logo in all presentations. We believe that in the long run this strategy will take us from quietly brilliant to a globally recognised university.

Sources: University World News and Elephant in the lab

Translated by Theis Duelund