How Academics Vote in International Rankings

Study raises questions about what those responding do or don’t know about institutions they are evaluating.

November 6, 2017
 
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Most international rankings of colleges and universities (and many domestic ones as well) rely in significant part on surveys of academics. Faculty members in various disciplines evaluate the quality of departments in their fields. In the United States, presidents have long played a key role in evaluating institutions in their sector of higher education.

The reliability of these polls has long been questioned. Periodically, college officials admit that their institutions have used voting to promote themselves and to bring down rivals, not to offer a true estimation of another institution's strengths and weaknesses.

World 100, an international organization of universities, last week released a survey of 800 academics (some professors, some senior administrators) at universities around the world. World 100 has its own interest in rankings. It advises colleges on how to manage their reputations (including as determined by rankings), and charges 3,000 pounds ($3,375) for the full report.

Some of the findings that the group released:

  • Many faculty members make a good-faith effort to identify top departments in their field.
  • They also rely on "super brands" and, if they aren't sure of top departments, will name departments at institutions with strong reputations across fields.
  • Many said that they look at past rankings when filling out reputation reports.
  • Generally they report knowledge of top departments in terms of research, but little knowledge of teaching quality (although some rankings ask them to evaluate teaching quality).

Those who conduct rankings have varying responses to the criticisms. An essay by Phil Baty, who leads the rankings at Times Higher Education, argues that universities indeed have brands (even if they don't like to admit it). So it is legitimate, he argues, to judge institutions in part based on the reputations of their brands.

Baty writes that brands matter. "Research has shown that a university’s brand and reputation are highly influential in attracting talent -- among both students and staff -- and can influence philanthropy and investment. In many respects, reputation is the currency of global higher education," he writes.

Via email, Robert Morse, who heads the rankings operation at U.S. News & World Report, defended the use of reputation surveys.

"It is true that U.S. News & World Report uses reputation as two of the 13 factors in the overall Best Global Universities rankings. It’s important to note that our reputation survey variables … are based on ratings collected from more than 30,000 individuals, including academic staff, research staff, graduate/postgraduate students and more. This large number of raters provides comprehensive, statistically sound results comparing universities on a global level. Ultimately, the Best Global Universities rankings emphasize academic research performance at schools worldwide."

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