Why are general rankings useless to students?

Posted on 17/08/2011


Back in 2009, Nian Cai Lu, the creator of the ARWU “Shanghai” ranking aptly warned that this ranking did “not constitute a standard for world-class universities” (for this interview in French: http://www.educpros.fr/international/relations-internationales/detail-article/h/256d469b6a/a/nian-cai-liu-concepteur-du-classement-de-shanghai-notre-ranking-ne-constitue-pas-un-standard.html)

This is the opportunity to remind us a simple fact: general rankings (Times Higher Education ranking and ARWU being the best examples) are only useful to the ones they are designed for and that it can be misleading to use them for other purposes. And among all, students should not use them.

. General rankings are by essence very broad. Outside maybe of the 20 best universities worldwide or the 5 best in a region, being in the ranking does not mean that the university has a scientific recognition in your area of study. Numbers are obviously aggregated for the entire university and very high ratings in one discipline can compensate for lower ones in other disciplines. As such, as your area of study will certainly be narrow, particularly if you are a Master or PhD student, you cannot use them. Having one Nobel Prize winner in Physics does not mean that the MBA will be good. To counter this issue, general rankings have introduced “discipline-based” rankings. But then it’s sort of putting a plaster on a wooden leg. For example, the THE ranking, in its 2010 edition has a category called Social Sciences defined as such: “This broad subject category covers student favourites such as business and economics, as well geography, education, criminology and international relations”. It is honest to them to recognise that this subject category, supposed to be narrow, is broad. How being good in geography is of any interest if you want to study business? As a consequence, they do obvious mistakes. Just one example, MIT is not ranked in the social sciences category in the THE ranking (2010), even if it is highly recognised in economics, in innovation, in technology management, both for Master and PhD studies. I am not sure that the several world star faculty members teaching are appreciating that. Or more surely, they genuinely don’t care as they don’t need the THE ranking to attract the best students or funding from companies.

. General rankings are not customer-oriented. They do not ask the right people. If we take the example of the THE ranking, since when do academics from another institution have any idea on the quality of the student experience in another institution? What do they know about internships, study abroad programs, placements, alumni network, etc…? Some of them don’t even have this information for their own institutions! They MAY know about the research quality, as they read articles and meet other academics in conferences, may have participated in joint-research projects, may even have taught there (but that would then be a very small percentage of them). So, the information on a specific academic discipline could be useful for a PhD candidate. But if there is a champion/serial published in an academic area, will this person teach to undergraduate students? Or you will not even see his/her face in your 3 years on campus? On the contrary, you will see specialised rankings (such as some of the MBA rankings) surveying alumni, HR managers, enquiring about the salaries after one year or 5 years,…All the useful information not captured by a survey on academics.

. General rankings do not take in consideration the localisation factor. If the academic world is certainly global (although academics still tend to stay in their own countries), many students do not want to embrace an international career. If you plan to work in your country, then the local integration of your university is important. If I am a German student and I want to work in Germany, well, this is interesting to get a very good training, but this is also interesting that this training is recognised locally and that I can benefit from the alumni network, which is also mostly local, outside of a very few truly international institutions such as INSEAD (oups, not ranked in the THE ranking!). So, if it is great that Harvard is the best university in the world, it does not really apply to me. Nor even that Cambridge is the best in Europe. I need a very good local training.


. General rankings focus only on universities. As such, they miss all the “schools”, which in several disciplines and countries are where things are happening. In Economics, where is the Toulouse School of Economics, even though it is considered as one of the most advanced research center worldwide in economics and econometrics and where the late founder was regularly cited as a potential recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economy? In Engineering, where are the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology)? Companies worldwide are praising the Indian engineers and this is one of the main reasons why global IT companies all have subsidiaries there.  In management, where are the French business schools, even though 5 of them are in the top 10 Master in Management ranking done by the Financial Times? And where are the Indian IIMs (Indian Institute of Management), again recognised worldwide for the excellence of their education and where students are fighting to enter?

Rankings such as the THE or ARWU were designed by academics for academics and because they are macro pictures of a situation, they resonate also to public bodies and governments, who like to think in general terms. And very interestingly, even if they pretend to be global, they adopted in their construction a very “Anglo-Saxon” view of the academic world, where full-fledged universities are the main way to get a degree and where the aims of getting a degree are sometimes far from the reality that students are confronted to (see the debate on higher education for life or for work). So, if such rankings are certainly pleasing in a self-centred academic world à la David Lodge, they should not be used for more than what they are.