The reality of university rankings

World university league tables tell us practically nothing about the institutions they rank.

Cambridge is the best university in the world, but Oxford is the best university in the UK. Bear in mind, however, that University College London is better than Oxford. Confused? Welcome to the world of university rankings.

The past fortnight has seen the publication of two worldwide university rankings that offer conflicting analyses of the state of higher education in the UK.

The first, published last week and compiled by QS, painted a rosy picture of British universities. Four of the top ten were British (with UCL above Oxford) and 19 of the world's top 100 universities were from the UK. To top it all off, Cambridge knocked Harvard off the top spot.

One week later, and British universities were no longer feeling so smug. In the THES rankings, just five universities made the top 50 and only 14 were in the top 100. To compound the misery, Harvard was once more ensconced at number one.

To confuse matters further, both these rankings conflicted with the national university rankings. The Times and Guardian university rankings agree that Oxford is the best in the UK, even though it ranks behind Cambridge in both world rankings and behind UCL in QS's.

According to the Times, Durham is one place better than UCL. But according to the THES rankings, UCL is better than Durham -- by 88 places.

The reason behind these skewed results is simple: all the rankings use vastly different criteria. QS uses a survey of academics, the number of citations, graduate employment rates, student-faculty ratios and the number of international students to build its rankings.

Such an approach has been heavily criticised, not least by our own David Blanchflower:

Almost a third of the score is based on the student-to-faculty ratio and the proportion of both international faculty and overseas students, which is laughable as they tell us zero about quality. Other questionable measures that are used underweight the importance of current scholarship. This is an index that penalises the best to help the mediocre. We should judge our universities on the quality and quantity of the research that they produce. Period.

He's scathing about the results of the survey, too:

The UK is not home to four of the top ten universities in the world, sorry.

Blanchflower favours the THES's new approach, which relies heavily on citations. While citations are certainly indicative of research quality, research quality does not necessarily indicate a good university -- at least not from the student's view.

Having a world-class professor in your department does not necessarily equate to a world-class education. Being able to write a good book is no indication of whether or not a professor can give an excellent lecture or competently run a seminar.

It's for this reason that the Times''s ranking takes the National Student Survey (NSS) into account. The NSS asks students how satisfied they are with their education. If a student is satisfied, the thinking goes, then they must have received a good education. Thus the university is deserving of a higher ranking.

But students at different universities have vastly different expectations. Those near the bottom of the satisfaction league -- such as the London School of Economics and Manchester -- are often at the top of overall rankings. Plus, students know that by criticising their university in the NSS, they are affecting its ranking and thus the reputation of their own degree. Professors have been known to pressurise students into giving good feedback for this very reason.

So, which ranking is best? Well, none of them. Each of them gives a broad idea of a university's strengths or weaknesses, but should be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Publishing "woe is me" articles because only eight universities made it into the top 50 is merely a way of ignoring the broader issues for higher education in Britain today.

If people stopped talking about rankings and concentrated instead on coming up with a viable funding model, our universities would improve massively -- and the rankings would take care of themselves.

Duncan Robinson also blogs here.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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