In the latest "Times" university ranking, Göttingen leads German universities.
© Frank Schulenburg - Wikimedia CommonsThings are gradually becoming confusing even for observers with an affinity for higher education. The current Shanghai ranking was published just a few weeks ago, followed a few days ago by the seventh "QS World University Ranking" and now the - also seventh - "Times Higher Education World University Ranking". Why this conspicuous burst of controversial university rankings? And where does the odd similarity in name between the latter two comparative studies come from, both of which additionally claim to have been published for the seventh time?
The short answer: the already contentious ranking industry has reached a new level of absurdity. For many years there were two market leaders among the international higher education rankings - reminiscent of sporting league tables - that made good money with their offerings: Shanghai Jiatong University and the British Times Higher Education (THE) magazine. Their rankings, by the way, were always the same: the Top Ten were made up almost exclusively of British and American universities, the first German institutions were listed somewhere in the 40s or 50s. Precisely this simplicity was the secret of their worldwide success, because that was the way - the only way - they made for really big headlines. The universities, at least those that were successful in the rankings, quietly played along and bragged about their respective placements in euphoric press releases. But which education expert seriously believed that the quality of entire universities with dozens of sometimes extremely different faculties could ever be sufficiently measured by a handful of indicators?
In the end apparently not even those who were doing it: in June, Times ranker-in-chief Phil Baty admitted in German magazine Die ZEIT that the previous six issues of the THE University Ranking had been "severely flawed" - the survey method incorrect, the number of surveyed experts too low, some of the criteria incorrectly selected and weighted. Ergo: the list wasn't worth much, according to Baty. Then Baty announced that THE was parting ways with its previous co-operation partner, who had supplied the data. The name of this institute: Quacquarelli Symonds, or QS for short. What followed was a public exchange of blows between the Times and QS after which the only thing that seemed clear to most observers was that there would be a - seventh - QS ranking and a - seventh - THE ranking. The latter, Baty promised, with a new partner (Thomson-Reuters) and a reliable method. One aim, however, Baty's admission of error has so far failed to achieve: the doubts regarding the international league tables, be they from Jiatong, THE or QS, are greater than ever.
The final, no less bizarre act was that QS got its own back on its former business partners last week by unexpectedly publishing its ranking ahead of the Times team, who responded with something closely resembling panic: nine days before the publication date that had only just been announced, they sent newspaper editors a sort of advance version of their comparison in which they declared which countries had amassed the most top-class universities in their ranking (unsurprising result: the USA and Great Britain).
What is going almost entirely unnoticed amid this ranking farrago is that both the British and the Chinese offer not only the one, controversial table, but also far more useful overviews of individual scientific areas such as the humanities or the natural sciences. The Chinese for example recently presented a university comparison that was structured into at least a small number of subjects - a move which, easily comprehensible to anyone, permitted outcomes such as a good place in economics but a lesser one in mathematics. The new THE ranking in turn, which is published worldwide today, is also trying to respond to some of the abundantly familiar points of criticism. The random sample of surveyed higher education experts and academics was expanded to over 13,000; some weaknesses in the indicators that determine placement were also corrected.
But how much has the order of the world's supposedly best universities actually changed in the Times ranking as a result of the methodology that THE boss Baty celebrated as "greatly improved"? The answer: to a surprising extent. According to the Times, the best German university is now suddenly Göttingen at no. 43 (no. 186 in the previous year), ahead of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich at no. 61 and Heidelberg at no. 83. Overall, the 200 best universities in the world according to the THE include 14 German institutions - an extremely positive quota. Times ranker Baty correspondingly sees German universities on the rise: "Their results prove that the Initiative for Excellence has paid off." But although the number of German universities among the top 200 may be high, most of them don't make it above no. 150. Precisely the comparison between individual scientific fields however produces a differentiated picture: for natural sciences, for example, Göttingen ranks even higher (namely at no. 22), while FU Berlin, which isn't even listed among the best 200 universities, is in the top 40 for the humanities.
Does the new THE methodology more reliably illustrate the quality of the international and German higher education systems? One thing at least is certain: the President of the TU Munich is not the person to call if you are looking for someone to sing the praises of the reformed Times ranking. Because that's the greatest surprise of all: the Technical University, which had received particularly good evaluations in the joint THE and QS ranking over the previous years and was also frequently praised to the skies by German experts, took a serious nosedive this year according to the Times - from no. 55 to no. 101. According to QS on the other hand it's still head of the German class.
From DIE ZEIT :: 16.09.2010
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