New 2008 Shanghai rankings, by rankers who also certify rankers

Benchmarking, and audit culture more generally, are clearly the issues of the week. Following our coverage of a new Standard and Poor’s credit rating report regarding UK universities (‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities‘), the Chronicle of Higher Education just noted that the 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) (published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University) has been released on the web.

We’ve had more than a few stories about the pros and cons of rankings (e.g., 19 November’s  ‘University rankings: deliberations and future directions‘), but, of course, curiosity killed the cat so I eagerly plunged in for a quick scan.

Leaving aside the individual university scale, one of the most interesting representations of the data they collected, suspect though it might be, is this one:

The geographies, especially the disciplinary/field geographies, are noteworthy on a number of levels. The results are sure to propel the French (currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union) into further action re., the deconstruction of the Shanghai methodology, and the development of alternatives (see my reference to this issue in the 6 July entry titled ‘Euro angsts, insights and actions regarding global university ranking schemes’).

I’m also not sure we can rely upon the recently established IREG-International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence to shed unbiased light on the validity of the above table, and all the rest that are sure to be circulated, at the speed of light, through the global higher ed world over the next month or more. Why? Well, the IREG-International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, established on 18 April 2008, is supposed to:

review the conduct of “academic ranking” and expressions of “academic excellence” for the benefit of higher education, its stake-holders and the general public. This objective will be achieved by way of:

  • improving the standards, theory and practice in line with recommendations formulated in the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions;
  • initiating research and training related to ranking excellence;
  • analyzing the impact of ranking on access, recruitment trends and practices;
  • analyzing the role of ranking on institutional behavior;
  • enhancing public awareness and understanding of academic work.

Answering the explicit request of ranking bodies, the Observatory will review and assess selected rankings, based on methodological criteria and deontological standards of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions. Successful ranking will be entities to declare they are “IREG Recognized”.

Now, who established the IREG-International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence? A variety of ‘experts’ (photo below), including people associated with said Shanghai rankings, as well as U.S. News & World Report.

Forgive me if I am wrong, but is it not illogical, best intentions aside, to have rankers themselves on boards of institutions that seek to review “the conduct of ‘academic ranking’ and expressions of ‘academic excellence’ for the benefit of higher education, its stake-holders and the general public”, while also handing out IREG Recognized certifications (including to themselves, I presume)?

Kris Olds

2 thoughts on “New 2008 Shanghai rankings, by rankers who also certify rankers

  1. You’re right. “Who will guard the guards?”

    Meanwhile the Shanghai system has some glaring defects. To name one, there is an indicator called, simply, “Alumni.” This measures the “total number of the alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.” Since this is heavily dependent on (or at least influenced by) the size of the student body, large institutions are more likely to have a higher score in this category.

    Criteria and weights are here.

  2. Interesting!
    Objectivity is a challenge when it comes to ranking HE institutions. Ranking the rankers is, yet, another challenge. We realize that some rankers are actually subject to rankings, such as Shanghi and Switzerland University to name some. It is hard to find one ranking that could win global approval.
    It is, though, true that such rankings play a positive role as a wake-up call or incentive to mobilize some decision makers. It also helps draw the attention of different stakeholders who might find these rankings reliable somehow.

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