Take university rankings with a grain of salt

Popular global university rankings say very little about the quality of education offered at the schools they rank, and post-secondary institutions need to stop relying on these rankings for determining their own reputation, says UBC professor Michelle Stack.
Popular global university rankings say very little about the quality of education offered at the schools they rank, says UBC associate professor Michelle Stack. (CBC)

Popular global university rankings say very little about the quality of education offered at the schools they rank, says University of British Columbia professor Michelle Stack.

And that's not the only problem, she says. The other is that many post-secondary institutions place too much value in these rankings for determining their own reputation.

Stack herself works at a top-ranked, highly reputable university, which is what got her interested in the issue.

I kept going to faculty meetings and university meetings where we were told, 'We're up in the rankings! We're up in the rankings!' and we'd clap. I started to think, maybe I should know a bit more about why I'm clapping.- Michelle Stack

The rankings she is referring to — like the Times Higher Education Ranking, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities — are so influential that some countries look at them when determining their immigration policies, Stack says.

UBC professor Michelle Stack researches media and university rankings. (Gavin Fisher/CBC)

Yet many of the rankings are owned by businesses focused on profits, not education, says Stack, who researches university rankings and has written a book on the subject.

Then there is the issue of methodology: the way these ranking systems collect data changes frequently, she says.

"You might have a university that does really well one year and doesn't do well a few months later when they collect the data again. Can a university really change that much in that short period of time?"

Attracting international students

Because public funding for universities in Canada has been steadily declining, many universities in this country are trying to make up that money by recruiting international students — who pay far higher tuition fees — and attracting donors and investments, Stack says.

Since international students and patrons often look at global rankings, university administrators are caught in "a real catch-22," she says.

When I talk to university leaders they often say, 'Look we know that the rankings are flawed … but we also know that we need to be visible and if we just don't pay any attention to rankings we could lose international students and we can't afford that.'- Michelle Stack

Gaming the system

The influence of these rankings can even affect faculty at universities, since many of them look at the number of PhD holders and Nobel Prize winners on faculty, and how often faculty are published in journals written in English, which is problematic, Stack says.

This can also lead to some universities trying to "game" the system.

One university in Saudi Arabia rose rapidly in the rankings after paying top academics at other universities to list their institution as a secondary institution on the papers they published — even though they did no meaningful work with that university, Stack says.

Stack also says these rankings don't actually reflect the experience that students may have at the university. 

For example, rankings don't look at how a university deals with sexual assault on campus, or student debt, Stack says, adding that a higher ranking tends to drive up tuition fees at that school.

She would like to see rankings incorporate these factors instead, and rather than a numbered ranking (1, 2, 3) have different categories so someone can see the areas in which a university excels.

"It really depends on what the student wants, and what kind of experience they want. That's more important than a ranking," she says. 

Partly what I'd like to see is just to re-ignite the imagination around what as a society do we see as a good education. I don't think it should just be up to universities to determine they're successful. I think that the community needs to be a part of it.- Michelle Stack