A Ranking of World University Rankings

Shanghai Jiao Tong University recently published its Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for 2012. As usual, it contains both general university rankings and many specialized field and location based lists.
Ranking universities is an impressive dimensionality reduction challenge:
map from academic institutions to one dimension, hoping that your projection relates to loosely defined concepts like academic reputation. Think of trying to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier while reading Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to understand the concept of landing.

Rankings of specific departments are much less meaningless compared to university rankings and serve different purposes. As a student, I must admit that rankings seemed very useful. They allegedly help in another aircraft carrier landing task of choosing a school.

Just like everybody else, I still look rankings but now I have several concerns. Graduate school rankings in particular create a self-fulfilling prophecy: the best students and young faculty join higher ranked schools when given the option, hence creating a positive feedback loop.

US News almost has a de-facto national ranking monopoly, especially in the eyes of students. This sounds like a dangerous thing. Universities and departments have strong incentives to optimize a specific formula involving indicators like PhDs awarded per year and papers per academic staff. Aligning with a specific ranking methodology might not necessarily align with society’s or student interests.

Instead of thinking about these important questions, I compiled my personal ranking of world university rankings. The methodology is highly scientific: I read through each list and counted how many times I screamed: ‘Seriously, you ranked this school higher than this other school?‘.

The ranking with the lowest number of screams wins. Interestingly, ARWU wins my least absurd ranking award. The rest are:


2. Times Higher Education World University Rankings

3. QS World University Rankings (aka US News world)
(Imperial at #6 and Stanford at #11 /facepalm)

(RatER, Forbes remain unranked)


4 thoughts on “A Ranking of World University Rankings

  1. And soon there will rankings of rankings of rankings, and rankings of rankings of rankings of rankings…..
    Sorry couldn’t resist this one! 🙂 I share your concerns about the “self-fulfilling nature” of rankings btw.

  2. ARWU is very useful fun for kids and also interesting for all, but not any educated person takes it for serious, maybe some American students at mediocre universities who feel flattered. For example alone the Max Planck Society has a publication output tête-à-tête with Harvard and the highest citation impact in physics. Also Helmholtz, Leibniz and Fraunhofer institutes play a major role in the German university system while the in-house research focus and capacity is significantly lower, partly in another league. Similar issues are obvious for many countries, partly much higher developed than the US which still have the strongest overall field, followed by Australia, but not even close to so overwhelming. In my east-German home-city more US-founded firms have their bases than in most major cities of Silicon Valley, as it seems the German education system is not that bad, it needs improvement and investments nevertheless. I was an exchange student at Ohio State University for nine months with paid studies like in paradise. Good university but not singular, maybe because the city is not that great with extremely poor infrastructure which rarely can be found so in Europe, but America is much more competitive, success or not has more impact to your personal well-being, it could be stressful for some, I could deal with it, but I am not sure if I would like it more. In some countries, I don’t say in Germany, but in the more western and more eastern central Europe and in Italy, ARWU shakes the employers’ preferences upside down.

  3. Be different. Everybody is “innovative”, it’s boring. For Europeans and all others I recommend the University of Prague in the Czech Republic, founded in 1348. Spanish economists writing about Portuguese problems must be more than outstanding to appear in Science or Nature. In some subjects English is not even the shared language of science. Nobel Prizes are counted beginning in 1911. The recent CalTech developments are really impressive, but a lot of Czech, Romanian or Indian IIT students would be preferred by both smaller and larger high-tech firms for middle-management positions over the average MIT master, no matter how selective and more advanced or better equipped this institution is. At the second devastating high school reunion only true results matter, it will be surprising because you do or you don’t – wherever you have studied the simple basics of life.

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