Friday, October 11, 2013

Ranking World Universities- Helpful or Harmful to Academia?

THE World University Rankings 2010-2011, powered by Thomson Reuters
On October 2nd, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings were released by Thompson Reuters, listing the most prestigious universities around the world based on education prowess.  Specifically, the universities undergo evaluation based on teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook, which most institutions believe to be their core missions.  The top school on the list is the California Institute of Technology, followed by Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and other highly prestigious universities. 

While some view academic rankings as beneficial to growth for the higher education and university systems globally, others find them to be detrimental to the validity of universities not considered for ranking.  I have been at this university for over two years now, and I am fully aware of the sheer potential this institution has to not only support and educate the students that pass through its doors, but also benefit society as a whole.  However, we are not on the Times Higher Education list, nor do we appear often on other university rankings.  Does this diminish the validity or success of UT Tyler?

Institutions often rank universities not as a whole, but based on different programs or fields of study, creating a new sense of competition for the programs that are low on the list, or not ranked at all.  For example, U.S. News University Directory offers a list of what they deem to be the Top Political Science Schools & Colleges in the United States (which is specific to graduate and doctoral programs).  They also offer a similar list for graduate and doctoral programs in Economics.  While these lists are beneficial for students who wish to have a career in a particular field, the lists are often very similar in rank.  Harvard University is on the top of both of these lists, even though some political scientists or economists would disagree with the list results. 

The main question for most skeptics is this: do these rankings allow for a true evaluation of ALL universities and colleges in the United States, or do they only evaluate a certain group of schools that consistently rank high in academic prowess.  I know that UT Tyler does not have the same student population or net worth as Harvard University, but that should not diminish its potential to educate students, or to provide opportunities for graduate school or doctoral programs after a student graduates.  The calculation of “top schools” seems to include only elite universities with high name recognition, and not often enough do they acknowledge smaller universities with a similar potential for success.

It will be impossible to abandon rankings outright, as the impulse to grade things seems hard-wired into human nature.  They also serve some bureaucratic purpose, since the metrics of performance and decisions regarding resource allocation often stem from these rankings.  The only real concern I hold is that an academic institution like UT Tyler--which does not carry as heavy of name recognition as universities like Harvard, Georgetown, or UT Austin—is not removed from consideration by graduating high school seniors simply because it is deemed “less relevant or competitive” in comparison.  This could create a binary for academia that labels institutions like Harvard as “elite” or “competent,” and considers schools like UT Tyler to be “lesser.” 

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