Ed's Letter

October 2014


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What’s in a number?

Jude Barback

There’s a billboard near my home that advertises The University of Auckland as “New Zealand’s world-ranked university”. It has always struck me as a slightly odd selling point.

Auckland University was 92nd in this year’s QS rankings and 175th in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings. It ranked 201-300 in the 2014 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or ‘Shanghai Ranking’ as it is more commonly known.

How can it be in the top 100 by one organisation’s reckoning, top 200 by another’s, and top 300 by a third? Which one counts? Which one matters?

Every year, when world university rankings are released, I am reminded of why they annoy me somewhat.

A ranking system will allocate an institution its position on the league table, based on certain criteria. A few weeks later, a rival ranking system will give a completely different result.

It isn’t surprising that universities achieve such different rankings; the systems measure universities in a variety of ways, based on a variety of factors. The QS rankings are based on information derived from surveys around research, teaching, employability and international outlook; the THE places emphasis on teaching quality; and Shanghai focuses on the standard of research.

With so much variation, why do we get so hung up on the rankings? Do they really matter?

It would appear they do. The rankings have a bearing on various scholarship and grant programmes around the world, including in Brazil, India, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Russia – to name a few. They’re a motivator for universities to keep improving their positions.

In recent years, New Zealand universities have begun to slide down the rankings, for which many blame the Government; we need more funding in order to stay up in the rankings, the argument goes. Certainly, there does appear to be more emphasis from Government on achieving efficiencies and finding creative new delivery models than on increasing public investment.

But even if this were to change, there is only so much that is in our control. East Asia is pouring money into tertiary education, and new universities are emerging year on year, posing new competition.

While the rankings do bear significance – and what’s more, they’re here to stay – New Zealand institutions need to keep focused on their own games, on delivering the best education they can, rather than focusing their efforts on meeting a diverse range of international criteria.

A number on a league table does not accurately reflect the depth of student experience, research output and quality teaching that occurs in a university.

Jude Barback, Editor

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