THE-QS World University Rankings 2009: Year 6 of market making

THE-QSemailWell, an email arrived today and I just could not help myself…I clicked on the THE-QS World University Rankings 2009 links that were provided to see who received what ranking.  In addition, I did a quick Google scan of news outlets and weblogs to see what spins were already underway.

The THE-QS ranking seems to have become the locomotive for the Times Higher Education, a higher education newsletter that is published in the UK once per week.  In contrast to the daily Chronicle of Higher Education, and the daily Inside Higher Ed (both based in the US), the Times Higher Education seems challenged to provide quality content of some depth even on its relatively lax once per week schedule.  I spent four years in the UK in the mid-1990s, and can’t help but note the decline in the quality of the coverage of UK higher education news over the last decade plus.

It seems as if the Times Higher has decided to allocate most of its efforts to promoting the creation and propagation of this global ranking scheme in contrast to providing detailed, analytical, and critical coverage of issues in the UK, let alone in the European Higher Education Area. Six steady years of rankings generate attention, advertising revenue, and enhance some aspects of power and perceived esteem.  But, in the end, where is the Times Higher in analyzing the forces shaping the systems in which all of these universities are embedded, or the complex forces shaping university development strategies?  Rather, we primarily seem to get increasingly thin articles, based on relatively limited original research, heaps of advertising (especially jobs), and now regular build-ups to the annual rankings frenzy. In addition, their partnership with QS Quacquarelli Symonds is leading to new regional rankings; a clear form of market-making at a new unexploited geographic scale.  Of course there are some useful insights generated by rankings, but the rankings attention is arguably making the Times Higher lazier and dare I say, irresponsible, given the increasing significance of higher education to modern societies and economies.

In addition, I continue to be intrigued by how UK-based analysts and institutions seem infatuated with the term “international”, as if it necessarily means better quality than “national”. See, for example, the “international” elements of the current ranking in the figure below:


Leaving aside my problems with the limited scale of the survey numbers (9,386 academics represent the “world’s” academics?; 3,281 firm representatives represent the “world’s” employers?), and the approach to weighting, why does the proportion of “international” faculty and students necessarily enhance the quality of university life?

Some universities, especially in Australasia and the UK, seek high proportions of international students to compensate for declining levels of government support, and weak levels of extramural funding via research income (which provides streams of income via overhead charges). Thus the higher number of international students may be, in some cases, inversely related to the quality of the university or the health of the public higher education system in which the university is embedded.

In addition, in some contexts, universities are legally required to limit “non-resident” student intake given the nature of the higher education system in place.  But in the metrics used here universities with the incentives and the freedom to let in large numbers of foreign students , for reasons other than the quality of said students, are rewarded with a higher rank.

The discourse of “international” is elevated here, much like it was in the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK, with “international” codeword for higher quality.  But international is just that – international – and it means nothing more than that unless we assess how good they (international students and faculty) are, what they contribute to the educational experience, and what lasting impacts they generate.

In any case, the THE-QS rankings are out.  The relative position of universities in the rankings will be debated about, and used to provide legitimacy for new or previously unrecognized claims. But it’s really the methodology that needs to be unpacked, as well as the nature and logics of the rankers, versus just the institutions that are being ranked.

Kris Olds

12 thoughts on “THE-QS World University Rankings 2009: Year 6 of market making

  1. I may be wrong, but their love affair with the “international” tag might be associated with the fact that an excellent institution will implicitly be attracting students (and, to some extent, faculty) who are willing to leave their own countries to attend it. Having studied at one of best Portuguese universities in engineering, I might add that the share of international students was less than 1%, and, even then, most of the internationals came from former Portuguese colonies. The situation wasn’t much different with reference to the faculty, as most of them were locals.

    I’m pretty sure they would have been thrilled to market the university as something of “an international hub for academic excellence”, signalling their alleged quality, but unfortunately they couldn’t. There are probably more Portuguese students (who could have enrolled in the best local universities) leaving to top UK universities than British students (who could have gone to Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) coming to the best universities around here.

  2. Thanks Thelm – I agree with you in general. But as I said some universities, in some countries, are driven by the foreign student/fees imperative, not the quality of the students on a nationality-blind basis. To be sure there are many highly qualified foreign students in excellent universities but the foreign students/faculty indicator is not necessarily a mark of quality across the board. There are other ways of exploring this dynamic, and let’s hope they work harder at doing so in the future. Thanks for taking the time to comment! Kris

  3. A few factual points. Times Higher Education is a weekly magazine, and includes more than 45,000 words a week of higher education news, analsysis, comment, features and book reviews. Around half of all content is written by academics themselves. It can’t really be described as a “newsletter”.
    Our website, also includs daily news and, now, a daily international news digest — that’s another 10,00 or so words a week.
    The World University Rankings are published in a single, special pull out supplement to the regular weekly magazine, just once a year.
    We welcome debate about the merits or otherwise of our rankings and their methodology, but the ignorance of your comments about our weekly “newsletter” do you little credit.

  4. You’re right that the methodology needs to be unpacked and, to be fair, one of the accompanying pieces in the Times Higher Education does acknowledge this. Jamil Salmi and Roberta Malee Bassett at the World Bank explain that methodologies change yearly, yet the consumers of league tables are often unaware. Salmi and Bassett suggest that “the impact of methodology on outputs in rankings ought to be of primary concern for ranking professionals”.

    In the compilation notes, THE say, “we accept that there are some criticisms of our methodology. These rankings are meant to be the starting point for discussions about institutions’ places in the rapidly globalising world – and how that is measured and benchmarked – not the end point. We encourage that discussion.”

    So it looks like, as you hope, that they are working harder at exploring different dynamics in the future.

  5. Dear Mr. Baty,

    The term weekly “newsletter” was used at it implies less than daily coverage, and non-magazine format (my personal definition of a “magazine” is The Economist, a physically smaller and glossy-like product). Perhaps I should have used the term weekly “newspaper”. But perhaps “magazine” is a term that makes more sense in the UK. Magazines, newsletters and newspapers are not in themselves terms that imply relative quality in my personal view (just look at the diversity of what is on offer in any “magazine” stand!).

    But, as a subscriber and regular reader of the Times Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the free (on-line only) Inside Higher Ed I can’t help but note some evolving qualitative differences between the three. And I compared all three as they cover two of the world’s most important higher education landscapes.

    In today’s New York Times, for example, Paul Krugman made some important points about ‘The Uneducated American’ after drawing upon an insightful Chronicle of Higher Education article regarding the challenges being faced by community colleges in California.

    The Chronicle also uses the contributions of academics via guest contributions, as you would know, but their team of journalists *arguably* seem to have the capacity and freedom to delve deeper into issues (including international issues), and write longer articles.

    These are just my personal views (my personal ranking, if you will), hence my signature at the end of the entry in this weblog.

    I look forward to next week’s issue of Times Higher Education.

  6. I’m happy to let our readers, and any potential new readers, decide on our quality for themselves. If they have a look at, they can get a flavour of what we do. We’re very proud of it.
    In this week’s issue, all available free online (not behind a pay barrier), we have (in addition to our annual world rankings table): Harvard professor Harry Lewis on the unique ethos and “consructive confusion” that helps ensure Harvard’s continuing world success; The World Bank’s Jamil Salmi on the flaws of world university rankings and the responsibility of those who create them; Cambridge University’s Simon Blackburn on “An intellectual history of cannibalism”; Bruce Krajewski of Texas Woman’s University on “adminizombies” and other unsavour characters in university administration; Princeton University’s Alan Ryan on the importance of technical skills training; Birkbeck College’s AC Grayling on the question “what is art”; Queen Mary, London Universtiy’s professor Kevin Sharpe on modern student lifestyles; a report on a new study from Thomson Reuters on the growing research strength of India; our satirical columnist, Laurie Taylor, on life at the fictional Universtiy of Poppleton; and 20 pages of news.
    We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoy putting it all together each week.

  7. Thanks Phil.

    There are, no doubt, many challenges getting the balance right regarding the relative importance of a team of full- or part-time journalists who conduct original investigative research for their employer (e.g., the THE or the Chronicle), versus guest entries (such as the ones you identified above), all the while grappling with the pressure for all on-line outlets to be free for users, the costs of associated with original international research, and so on.

    It would be helpful, for those of us who are trying to make sense of the rankers (including THE-QS team), how the rankings exercise fits into your business plan(s). If you ever want to write a guest entry on this issue in GlobalHigherEd, we’d be happy to post it, or link to the article on your own site.

    Given the increasing importance of higher education and research to societies and economies, coverage via outlets like THE, the Chronicle, journals, etc., will matter more and more over time. It is in everyone’s interest to better understand how the nature of this coverage is changing, the forces underling the changes, and the implications of the changes.

    As I said above, I look forward to next week’s issue of Times Higher Education. Guest entries welcome, any time, too.

    Have a good weekend.

  8. Pingback: Are we witnessing a key moment in the reworking of the global higher education landscape? « GlobalHigherEd

  9. Pingback: Are we witnessing a key moment in the reworking of the global higher education & research landscape? « GSED – Global Studies in Education Digest

  10. Just to confirm Thelm’s comment on “international”. In the past International Faculty and International Students would (in the UK) have been described as Foreign Faculty and Foreign Students. “International” has been adopted presumably because it seems less unfriendly than “foreign”.

    “Non-national” might have been a better choice of word.

  11. Thelm, your comment is right on the nail. THE-QS World University Rankings give points for the things that British universities excel at. Among these are the English-medium education that attracts foreign students. Here in Asia, universities from HK and Singapore dominate the final results, even though they don’t perform nearly as well when measures of research excellence are compared. But even the top schools in Japan, Korea and Taiwan have only a handful of foreign students because, of course, they have local-language instruction.

  12. Couldn’t resist another post. We have recently announced that our rankings will change. We will no longer be working with QS, who have previously collected and compiled the data for us. The methodology is now up for open consultation to ensure we are meeting the needs of the university community. Details, the editor’s comments, and space for all to have thier say here:

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