University rankings fail student consumers

Professor Warren Bebbington, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide.

Professor Warren Bebbington, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide.
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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

International university ranking are so unreliable as consumer advice that students will dump them unless they improve, said the new University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor and President.

Addressing the Council for Economic Development Association (CEDA) in Adelaide today, Professor Warren Bebbington commented on the Shanghai Jiao Tong World Rankings of Universities, released last week.

"University rankings would have to be the worst consumer ratings in the retail market. In no other area are customers so badly served by consumer ratings as in the global student market," said Professor Bebbington. "The international rankings must change, or student consumers worldwide will eventually stop using them.

"Next to buying a house, choosing a university education is for most students, the largest financial commitment they will ever make. A degree costs more than a car, but if consumer advice for cars was this poor, there would be uproar.

"Students the world over use rankings for advice on which particular teaching program, at what campus to enrol in. Most don't realise that many of the rankings scarcely measure teaching or the campus experience at all. They mostly measure research outcomes." For this reason, said Professor Bebbington, half the universities in the US, including some very outstanding institutions, remain unranked.

He went on to discuss the inconsistency of university ranking results against the quality of the learning experience. According to Professor Bebbington, such a contradiction should come as no surprise: "Anyone who knows exactly what the rankings actually measure knows they have little bearing on the quality of the education."

Another problem was an increasing number of ranking systems, each producing different results. "With some, we have seen universities shift 40 places in a year, simply because the methodology has changed, when the universities have barely changed at all," he said. "It leaves students and parents hopelessly confused."

The Jiao Tong rankings in particular favour natural sciences and scarcely reflect other fields according to Professor Bebbington. "Moreover, they assume all universities have research missions. Those dedicated to serving their State or region through teaching, rather than competing in the international research arena, may be outstanding places to study, but at present are unranked.

"What is needed is a ranking that offers different lists for undergraduate teaching programs, international research-focussed programs, and regionally focussed programs. We need a ranking that measures all disciplines and is not so focussed on hard science."

University of Adelaide retained its position in the 201-300 band in the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, amongst the top 1% in the world.


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