Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How accurate are college rankings?

How accurate are college rankings?
Wed, Dec 09, 2009
China Daily/Asia News Network

For Jia Zhenmei, choosing the right university for her 18-year-old daughter next summer is a critical decision - but pinning her hopes on China's college rankings could be a big mistake, according to experts.

This could be a life-changing decision, so I can't afford to get it wrong," said the 42-year-old mother. "We don't know much about universities, we just want to get as much information as we can so I will definitely be buying some books to find out the university rankings."

She is not alone. Parents across China, as well as overseas students will feverishly check the national rankings to help them decide which institution to put their faith in.

Marcus Nelson Muhariwa, 29, had never heard of Tsinghua University before reading an online ads in his native Malawi for its global business journalism program two years ago.

"I inquired about the school online and learned from Chinese people in Malawi that it was rated top in China," he said. "After I found out about its world ranking, I was even more confident."

Tsinghua's top position may not be questionable. But education experts have questioned the effectiveness and objectiveness of the listings published by unofficial organizations on the Internet and in books in China.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education's stance is very clear. "We don't support university rankings," said its spokeswoman Xu Mei in May.

Corruption during university evaluation has been reported in the Chinese media, while it is also alleged independent organizations make inspections of selected universities before official assessments in order to give them "top marks".

Rankings are now a worldwide phenomenon, said Professor Tom Parker, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, in the United States.

Those published by the London-based Times Higher Education supplement and the world rankings compiled at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University have become key points of reference for anyone interested in education.

For Ferdinand Devinsky, member of the Poland-based International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, a university ranking system allows "society to not only know what it will get for its investment, but what the future will be for its children".

"Equally, higher education institutions should use their ranking to improve," he said. "It must be stated, though, that all rankings are subjective and the results depend on the criteria used."

But to work, the professor said the systems must be free of corruption.

"When a proper ranking is made, there should be no contact with the institution, the leadership of the university or the higher education institution," he said. "Only publicly available data can be used so everyone can check the accuracy of the data and the results. This limits any possibility of corruption."

Chinese experts argue higher education evaluation is better than rankings.

"I prefer higher education evaluations," said Professor Liu Baocun, dean of the international and comparative education research institute at Beijing Normal University.

"This way, rather than ranking universities and giving them a score, we can identify the advantages and disadvantages of a university and determine the direction of further development."

Liu believes universities should not be compared with each other using fixed criteria. He said distinctions exist such as how much emphasis is placed on research and teaching or whether the university specializes in science or art degrees.

"University rankings will be more accurate if they are assessed by category," added Liu, who warned the public not to blindly follow university rankings. "Students should check the ranking of a major rather than the ranking of a university. Even great universities can have weak majors."

Yang Deguang, former president at Shanghai Normal University, was also quoted by China Youth Daily as saying that parents and students should not depend entirely on rankings when applying for college.

Yang called for universities to focus on their own advantages and traditions. "A universities' development should be based on its specialties. They cannot be distracted by rankings," he was quoted as saying.

No comments: