Problematics of university rankings

I got an SMS late in the evening congratulating me for our university’s ranking success. I was a little baffled about the timing of the message, but thought that the person sending it wanted to take part in the joy we had felt at the university for the past week due to our excellent performance in a ranking list of the young universities. In the morning, when my brain worked faster, I remembered that a new ranking list had been published at midnight. Indeed: the sender’s home university had succeeded well and, for the first time in its history, they were ranked among the world’s leading universities. Our university didn’t do quite as well.

Although none of the rankings are perfect in terms of the data and methodology used, their significance for the reputation of universities is unpredictably great. They tell about something else, too. However, one should stop and think about whether they tell about genuine differences in quality, or about something that should not be forced on the same scale to begin with. Or whether they tell about overall indexes, which are basically indicative of nothing with real-life importance.

It is a known fact that measuring anything other than the number of scientific articles published in international journals is difficult. The quantitative indicators used in the first rankings were favourable to some fields, and this has now been corrected by introducing field-specific weightings which, in turn, can accumulate success for fields in which the competition isn’t that hard. The distortion caused by the weight of the quantitative indicators has also been tried to be fixed by various reputation surveys. A multidisciplinary university from a small language area faces inevitable disadvantage in the competition.

In my opinion, continued success in several different rankings constitutes a good goal for us. This year again, the UEF was one of the three Finnish universities which all the three major ranking list publishers (ARWU, QS and THE) recognise as being among the world’s leading 400 or 500 universities. It’s good to continue from here, and also to increase people’s awareness of us, which in our case has been a weak spot in all rankings.

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Perttu Vartiainen