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 wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

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