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Ranking Schmanking

by Michael Nielsen on November 7, 2004

My last post was about the ever-controversial – at least, among academics – subject of University rankings. I thought I’d add a few comments about why this subject is controversial, and what point (if any) there is in such rankings.

Many people are disappointed by such rankings, often disparaging them as unobjective, or as being “not scientific”.

In my opinion, this is to start off with the wrong perspective. A ranking of the top 200 Universities in the world is no more likely to be objective or scientific than is a list of the top 200 movies, or the top 200 albums. Everybody’s got a different ideal, and so different people come up with different lists.

In short, the devil is in the details of the criteria used. I’ve often heard people decry the criteria used to produce a certain list as “obviously wrong” in some way. The difficulty is that it’s rare to find two people who agree on what ways those criteria are obviously wrong. This is particularly true if you take a diverse range of people – High School students, undergrads, postgrads, postdocs, admin staff, academics, bureaucrats and politicians all have radically different ideas of a what a University ought to be.

So what’s the point of lists like the one mentioned? Is it all just personal opinion? Is it all just a waste of time?

In my opinion, no, it’s not all just a waste of time. The lists are worthwhile, provided they’re not taken too seriously. Here’s a few ways they’re worthwhile:

1. They focus our attention on a very interesting question: what is it that makes a good University? To what should one aspire? These are things well worth thinking about for anyone associated with a University, and they often get lost in the humdrum of the everyday.

2. They can help people at all levels make decisions. This might mean a High School student entering University, or a Government bureaucrat making multimillion dollar funding decisions. This is only a good thing, of course, if people are conscientious, look at the criteria being used in constructing a list, and making sure they’re appropriate for the type of decision being made.

3. They can change the way we look at academia. For example, ETH Zurich was just barely on my radar before looking at this list. The fact that it came in at number 10 certainly got my attention.

4. Most people associated to a University in any way have their own little informal version of this list, based on their own personal criteria. Looking at a list like this causes us to re-evaluate. I must admit, my own personal list is far more dominated by American Universities than the list I pointed to, and there’s no way six Australian Universities feature in the top 50. Seeing this list has caused me to ask myself some questions about whether my former evaluation was wrong.

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