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Are university ranking exercises inherently biased?

By Hamish Johnston

Okay, I know that I should have looked the other way, but every year I fly into a rage when I look at the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking of world universities.

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This is always reported with a certain smugness in the UK because British universities do very well. Indeed, three institutes – Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London – are in the top 10.

But what gets me is the fact that all of the top 10 are Anglo-American universities. You have to dip down to 15th place to find the first non-Anglo institute, which is ETH Zurich.

There are three Canadian universities in the top 30, all of which follow the Anglo-American model. The second-best non-Anglo institute is the University of Tokyo, which is way down in 30th place.

Is it really the case that English-speaking countries have vastly superior universities, or is there some inherent bias in the THE’s ranking criteria?

In this week’s Facebook poll we want to know your opinion on university rating exercises in general.

Are university ranking exercises inherently biased?


Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

In the case of the THE rankings, one possible bias is that a whopping 60% of the score each university receives is related to research and academic publishing. That’s great for research-intensive Anglo-American universities, but not so good for universities in places such as Germany – where much of the best scientific work is done at labs such as the Max Planck institutes.

The top place in Germany goes to the University of Munich, which comes in at 45th. This means that both Canada and Australia have three and two universities, respectively, that are ranked higher than Germany’s best. I know first-hand that Canada has some good universities, but I find it hard to believe that German universities are as poor as the survey suggests.

It looks as if some Germans don’t like it either, and have taken an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Way back in 2006 the German federal government launched its Excellence Initiative that aimed to push some universities up to the elite status of Harvard or Oxford. The idea is to boost the funding of research at some universities to make them more attractive to top researchers and postgraduate students.

Of course, it is possible that Anglo-American universities are simply better than the rest. Anglo universities tend to have a much more international outlook than their non-Anglo counterparts and therefore could find it easier to attract the best and the brightest staff and students from around the world. Operating in English – the lingua franca of academia and business – can’t hurt either.

And what about teaching? On the THE site you can rank the universities based on teaching alone – and this doesn’t change the order that much at the top. So maybe Anglo-American universities are the best, or perhaps the education ranking itself is also biased towards the Anglo way of doing things!

Last week we asked you if the Fukashima nuclear incident in March 2011 had changed your opinion on nuclear power. About 63% of you said that the meltdown hadn’t changed your position, whereas 26% said it had hardened their opposition. The remainder said that Fukashima had strengthened their support.

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