Tag Archives: university ranking

Nordic networks support cooperation in China and Africa

The world university rankings published this summer were a pleasant read for the University of Eastern Finland.  Besides the performance of individual universities, it was interesting to look at the geographic distribution of the top 500 universities in the Shanghai ranking. It was no surprise that American and Western European universities did well, or that Chinese universities have been showing a strong performance in the past decade. The Shanghai ranking also included four universities from the Republic of South Africa but only two from Russia.

In the university world, networking has become an increasingly important tool in the growing competition for research resources and the best researchers. UEF has successful partners in all corners of the world. In China and southern Africa, we are also supported by an extensive Nordic university network. But have we fully tapped into the opportunities available through the Nordic networks? The Nordic Centre set up in conjunction with Fudan University, which was placed 151–200 in the Shanghai ranking, has served as a bridge connecting the Nordic universities and Fudan University, and businesses based in the Shanghai area. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in late October, the Nordic Centre currently comprises 25 Nordic universities.

A similar network, called SANORD (Southern African-Nordic Centre), has been established to bolster cooperation with southern African countries. This differs from its Chinese counterpart in that its membership consists of 25 leading universities from southern African countries, including the University of Cape Town, placed in the 201-300 bracket in the Shanghai ranking. Although not all African members of the network are yet able to reach the level of their Nordic partners, they are very eager to improve their higher education system, which creates demand for education export. Nordic SANORD members are by and large the same high-ranking universities that are part of the Nordic Centre.

Both the Nordic Centre and SANORD are fairly well known among researchers. However, the services offered by these networks could be utilised more efficiently. In addition to building bilateral relations with China and Africa, we should consider strengthening our cooperation with our Nordic partners. When seeking major international funding providers, or when planning extensive cooperation with the Chinese partners, a Nordic university consortium would be much more powerful and able to offer more skills and competences than any individual university. Based on my personal experience of the Nordic Centre’s operations, I would say we Finns have much to learn from the cooperation between the Swedish and the Danish in the Chinese projects. Active involvement in the Nordic Centre and SANORD allows us to forge stronger ties with our African, Chinese and Nordic partners.  Hopefully we will find ways of linking businesses to this competence network, too. Some promising developments are already under way in China.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen
dean

Universities on the way from strategy-driven to ranking-driven institutions?

Higher education institutions (HEIs) all over the world have become accustomed to planning their long-term goals in the form of strategies, accompanied by detailed plans for action based on them. The contents of such strategies are usually determined by specific research goals, educational and societal needs, the future labour market, and so forth. While all these are still widely considered to be some of the major factors behind the goals laid out in a typical HEI strategy, recent years have witnessed the arrival of yet another factor which is becoming increasingly powerful in defining a HEI’s profile and global position in the academic world, viz. international rankings of HEIs.

The European University Association (EUA) has just published a study entitled Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes: Impact or Illusion? (EUA Publications 2014). It is said to be the first pan-European study of the impact and influence of rankings on HEIs and their strategic planning procedures. This study brings to light some interesting results. Although rankings have received a lot of criticism from HEIs and individual academics, this study finds that over 60 per cent of the 171 HEIs examined use rankings to inform their strategic decision-making and this figure rises to over 70 per cent when various organisational, managerial, and academic actions are included. The vast majority of HEIs regularly monitor their placement in rankings and also use them in their bench-marking, branding and marketing efforts.

Use of rankings is by no means restricted to HEI officials or academics. According to the study, prospective students looking to find a suitable place to study, and especially those from outside Europe, were among the most active users of ranking lists. The same was also true for universities’ partner institutions and government ministries. All in all, one is left in no doubt as to the growing importance of rankings, which have clearly become a fact of life and have to be accepted as such. Also, HEIs cannot really be blamed for making use of them in their efforts to define and improve their global position. But we may have reason to worry if ranking lists start setting the parameters for what kinds of research are conducted in a university, what kinds of education it should offer, or what kinds of research or educational partnerships are possible between HEIs. Already there is evidence that ranking lists have begun to form obstacles to institutional collaborations even when such a need would be obvious and beneficial for all parties concerned on academic grounds. In such cases one wonders whether the tail has started to wag the dog and not the other way round.

filppulaMarkku Filppula

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.

PerttuVartiainen3_100x130px

Perttu Vartiainen

Reputation is a long-term project

Years ago, I participated in a world conference on environmental history at St Andrews. To my surprise, the train from Edinburgh did not arrive at St Andrews town centre, but at a stop in the middle of a vast field. The silhouette of a small coastal town located on a cape opened up in the horizon.

Was this really the home of the well-known educational institution found among the UK’s top six universities? The combination of a small town with less than 20,000 inhabitants and a university with 8,000 students seemed unreal. The University of St Andrews has turned its small size and remote location into attraction factors in its marketing, as can be seen in the following passage taken from the university’s website: “Why study at University of St Andrews? A small place, where you can get to know almost everyone – but with big ambitions in every shape from teaching and research to sport, music, drama, volunteering and charities.” St Andrews places emphasis on tradition and quality by reminding us that it is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Globally, there are several similar examples of small yet well-known universities, and perhaps we could learn something from them.

In university rankings, our performance is negatively affected by the fact that we are not particularly well-known. Within the scientific community, the quality and extensiveness of our research and the level of our research environments are factors through which we can raise awareness of our activities. Active publishing, working abroad, networking and participation in international conferences are excellent ways to spread the word about us. The decline in the interest of first- and second-degree students and doctoral students to study and work abroad is a concerning recent trend.

In the recently closed admission round, the attractiveness of the University of Eastern Finland as a place to study in continued to grow. However, we could do much better by using the positive images related to our education provision and our campuses to make up for the negative images related to our location. Without proper understanding of who we are and what we do, the location of our campuses gets more attention than our education provision. This is my conclusion of the results presented in the Kun koulu loppuu (Once School is Out) report by the Economic Information Office of Finland charting upper secondary school students’ future plans and images of Finnish higher education institutions. On a positive note, those interested in the University of Eastern Finland were clearly thirstier for knowledge and more appreciative of education than those interested in the other universities included in the survey.

Based on this survey, a rapid improvement of our national reputation is a challenging task. Over the past year, we have sought to raise awareness of who we are and what we do through UEF student ambassadors visiting upper secondary schools. Alongside students who are happy to study with us and positive media coverage, the development of alumni activities gives us tools to disseminate up-to-date information about our university to prospective students, their parents and main stakeholder groups alike. Our alumni constitute a resource we haven’t fully used yet.

The University of Eastern Finland, even when taking the history of its predecessors into consideration, is a young player in the international field. Standing out from the mass through determined definition of profile is a way to promote our reputation among colleagues, decision-makers and the general public. This makes location less important than knowledge and expertise, which are something students and researchers have been attracted by throughout centuries.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen