The Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings came out yesterday. Compared to previous years, there was very little fanfare for the release this time. And that’s probably because the results weren’t especially interesting.
The thing to understand about rankings like this is that they are both profoundly true and profoundly trivial. A few universities are undoubtedly seen as global standards, and so will always be at the top of the pile. Previous THE rankings have shown that there is a “Big Six” in terms of reputation: Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Cambridge, and Oxford – this year’s results again show that no one else comes close to them in term of reputation. Then there are another thirty or so who can more or less hold their position at the top from year-to-year.
After that, though, results are capricious. Below 50th position, the Times neither assigns specific ranks (it presents data in tens, i.e., 51st-60th, 61st-70th, etc.), nor publishes the actual reputation score, because even they don’t think the scores are reliable. Just for kicks, I divided this year’s top 100 into those groups of ten – a top ten, a next ten, a third ten, and so on – to see how many institutions were in the same group last year. Here’s what I got:
Number of Institutions in Each Ten-Place Grouping in THE Reputation Rankings, Which Remained in Same Grouping, 2013 and 2014
You’d expect a little movement from group-to-group – someone 71st last year rising to 69th this year, for instance – but this is just silly. Below about 40th spot, there’s a lot of essentially random survey noise because the scores are so tight together that even small variations can move an institution several places.
A few American universities rose spectacularly this year – Purdue came in at 49th, despite not even cracking the top 100 in the previous year’s rankings; overall, there were 47 (up 3 from last year) American universities in the top 100. Seoul National University was the biggest riser within the top 50, going from 41st to 26th, which may suggest that people are noticing quality in Korean universities (Yonsei also cracked top 100 for the first time), or it may just mean more Koreans responded to the survey (within limits, national response rates do matter – THE re-weights responses by region, but not by country; if you’re in a region with a lot of countries, like Europe or Asia, and your numbers go up, it can tilt the balance a bit). Surprisingly, Australian universities tanked in the survey.
The American result will sound odd to anyone who regularly reads the THE and believes their editorial line about the rise of the East and decline of West in higher education. But what do you expect? Reputation is a lagging indicator. Why anyone thinks its worthy of measuring annually is a bit mysterious.