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League tables

November 1st, 2005

Everybody loves league tables, especially when they do well. A couple of people (Graeme Halford and Jack Strocchi) pointed me to the Times Higher Education Supplement university league tables. Unfortunately the tables themselves are behind a paywall, but those ranked highly have not been quiet about it. The University of Queensland is ranked in the top 50 in the world and, for the social sciences, comes in at number 25. (It’s a bit annoying, by the way that the UQ press release runs first on the #29 ranking in biomedical science, and lists social sciences as an also-ran)

This is a pretty impressive ranking, though I’d be interested to see the criteria that put 17 Australian universities in the world’s top 200, compared to 54 in the US and 24 in Britain. It seems to overstate our relative importance, and to suggest that we are punching way above our weight. Still, the THES doesn’t seem likely to suffer from pro-Australian bias.

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  1. Harry Clarke
    November 1st, 2005 at 22:05 | #1

    I find the rankings unbelievable as do most of my colleagues. On a par with the 200 best movies of all time, the 200 best Thai recipes or the 200 best economists. But no-one who gets in the university rankings wants to do anything other than utilise their propaganda value regardless of any concerns about their meaning. My own La Trobe University is ranked 98th in the world and 23rd in Arts and Humanities. I haven’t been able to sleep all afternoon.

    To be less cynical (but still cynical) I guess the great Australian rankings are to be expected. In recent years I have read and heard from numerous Australian university administrators and VCs about their particular institution’s ‘pursuit of global excellence’ etc. Indeed often they seem to be able to parrot little else. For a long time I have regarded these claims as unoriginal self-love and exaggerated, third-rate marketing baloney. But I will listen harder in future and understand, with appropriate reverance, that these honoured gentlemen are establishing a justification for their weighty salaries and that they are simply telling us the truth.

  2. conrad
    November 2nd, 2005 at 07:42 | #2

    If it is like the UK rankings (which you can get for free — just click on the link, a summary of the methodology is also there), then part of the ranking includes a section where academics are asked to evaluate the course quality of other universities, which is presumably not very reliable. How well do you think that you can evaluate universities that you have worked at, let alone other ones ? (like, how good are department X in average university Y’s courses ?)

    The Shanghai Jiao Tong index is better, since you can just sort the universities by whatever category you want. There was also a paper in Nature (?; or PNAS?) a while back that had some very nifty ways for comparing actual performance of universities in different areas so you don’t just end up with a single number.

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