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World university rankings: measurements of teaching or research?

Reputation is an invaluable asset which colleges and universities use to recruit the best and brightest students from across the world. University rankings explicitly or implicitly influence the decisions prospective students—and their parents—make in choosing where to study. One of the most important components of global rankings is teaching; an element which is under increased scrutiny worldwide, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, publishers may not be properly assessing the quality of education for their rankings. Two of the most influential university ranking publishers—Times Higher Education (THE) and Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJT)—weigh teaching criteria at 30% and 20% respectively.

The SJT assesses quality of education by the number of alumni who have won a Nobel Prize or field medal and the quantity of cited researchers; more of a measure of research than education.

Times Higher Education appears to place a higher emphasis on teaching, weighing five criteria: a survey response; staff-to-student ratios; doctorate-to-bachelor ratios; teachers with doctorates; and institutional income. However, most of these criteria—particularly the survey and measure of doctorates–are subjective and peripherally related to quality of teaching.

A case may be made that university rankings are over-representing the weight of instruction in their evaluations, which are more accurately measuring research capabilities. It is unlikely the majority of prospective undergraduate students are aware of this and they continue to use the rankings as a barometer for teaching excellence.

Interestingly, the UK is piloting a new initiative to assess quality of education within its colleges and universities. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be voluntarily implemented in 2017-18 with the purpose of providing a more accurate measurement of quality instruction and rewarding institutions who excel. The three metrics measured by the TEF are employment rates, retention, and satisfaction.

While preliminary results from the TEF are still a while away they may introduce discrepancies with global rankings like the SJT and THE. For example, UK research universities which appear at the top of the THE rankings may be out-performed by smaller teaching institutions in the TEF rankings.

While it may be nearly impossible to use measures like the TEF at an international level, the UK initiative does point out the obvious fact that teaching must be a core measurement of higher education. If global rankings do not reflect this, they should title their publications more appropriately.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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