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Published on the 29.03.2019

The Problems with Ranking Universities


Today, if you’re not a part of the Higher education industry (not talking about the students here), how do you know if a particular university or business school is interesting, or simply good for you?

That’s right, you look at rankings. Ok, you can also ask around you who went where and how the experience was but come on, you always refer to the rankings? Imagine for students, how much weight rankings add to their decision-making.

Now there are a number of problems with these rankings.


Teaching and pedagogy are not represented enough in the calculations

Depending on the rankings and knowing only three rankings are considered internationally relevant (THE, QS and Shanghai), the quality of teaching and pedagogic innovation accounts for more or less 30% of a university’s overall grade.

This is problematic because:

  • today, pedagogic innovation in Higher education has become the most important factor in the success of students, not research. Indeed, proving you have a good quality of teaching means that in the end, students who’ll become researchers will have better backgrounds for their projects.
  • it pushes the universities to invest massively in hiring professors pursuing trendy researches and not necessarily good pedagogic methods. Worse, it pushes tenured and non-tenured professors to produce a highly growing number of papers, researches, articles etc. Putting that much pressure on professors to ensure their status in the university prevents them from spending time with students or on pedagogy. In the end, it means less skilled students and a growing skills gap.


Too many students, too few universities

According to UNESCO, in 2030, more than 400 million students will enter universities compared to less than 99 million in 2000, so that’s a more than 400% rise. The problem is that it means we need more and more universities to open or new ways to manage that many students.

See the problem? No? Well.

University rankings are a symbol of elitism. Generally, no one ever looks past the first 150 universities ranked on the list and most of the times, these are all from developed countries (mainly the US, China and the UK).

Knowing that most of the young generation is coming from Africa, the Middle East or South America or Asia, these rankings don’t help existing institutions in these continents even if lots of them are incredibly innovative or give effective learning programs.

  • It pushes these universities to adopt elitist measures to try to resemble universities from the “upper class club”
  • It doesn’t provide a real opportunity for students to envision a future they’d like to reach if, for example, they don’t have the means to get to American expensive institutions or if they just don’t want to travel thousands of kilometres to study abroad

Rankings as they are, propose a grim future. With the growing population going to universities, does it mean some will have to study through online learning only and via poorly engaging MOOCs while the richest more lucky ones will have the chance to access physically to the “best” campuses?

It shouldn’t be like that.


These rankings aren’t appealing to students

“I’d be curious to hear if one student ever found his university good, or ever decided to apply for a university, according to its ranking,” says Victor Wacrenier, CEO and co-founder at Appscho, a French startup that provides a campus management app.

It is true that students consider these rankings as essential in the decision-making process, according to a QS survey, 70% said so. But the main reason is that rankings seem to be indicators of employability. It stays elitist.

According to this survey, students are either over-relying on universities rankings, either need more metrics to understand what university can be the best for what they’re searching for.

There is currently a rethinking of universities’ values as institutions providing skills and a culture of learning rather than access to jobs. “It is a shift toward Lifelong learning” as says Patrice Houdayer, Vice-Dean at Skema business school. Rankings should thus adapt to these new values and propose appropriate guidings for a new generation of learners that have completely different expectations of their experience in universities and after.

In Conclusion, rather than spending massive amounts of money to go up or stay up in the rankings, universities should adopt a more “inbound” strategy and invest in pedagogy and the campus experience to make sure students are trained enough for having a life long learning discipline, skills for their future career. Naturally, these students will take care of the reputation of the school.

Rankings are needed though, but they must take into account much more variables like eco-friendly standards, pedagogic standards, innovation standards or campus experience standards. Accreditations are already on the move, so should rankings.

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