Top US professor criticises UK universities’ ranking focus

A leading US academic has attacked British universities for their continued focus on leading reputational rankings rather than focusing on innovation.

Valerie Woolston, based at the University of Maryland, spoke to the International Higher Education Forum in London to an audience of leading global academics.

Addressing the conference, Woolston said: “[Presidents] may be spending too much time on chasing reputations in rankings than focusing on innovation.”

She continued: “Who knows what students look at when they look at rankings. It’s just that each one is very specific and they are very different from one another.

“Rankings are not the fabulous English department or the marvellous physics department. International students are sophisticated in their ability to get where they want to be. If you’re doing a PhD, you have to look at an individual faculty member. It’s [something] you can’t go to a ranking for.”

Professor Woolston also claimed that students’ criteria for selecting universities are more nuanced than the rankings suggest and also that rankings often misrepresent smaller programmes such as Masters degrees and reputation levels for these courses.

The comments come in the wake of the recent publication of the World University Reputation Rankings in the Times Higher Education magazine last week.

The rankings placed Oxford and Cambridge second and third behind Harvard for global reputation, with Edinburgh University ranked 29th, an improvement of 17 places.

British universities have seen a wider rise in global reputation, with six other UK universities being placed in the top 50 of the THE reputation rankings, including the London School of Economics, King’s College London and the University of Manchester.

The rankings increase for UK universities also follows in the wake of the publishing of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in December last year, a new research ranking which has affected central grants offered to UK institutions.

Under the terms of the REF, UK institutions’ levels of research are graded according to a star system according to the central criteria of “originality, significance and rigour”.

Woolston’s own university – the University of Maryland – has fallen in the THE world rankings from 97th in 2012-13 to 132 in 2014-15, with its ranking falling to 62 amongst US universities.

The remarks also drew support from other important figures in the UK higher education scene.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), told The Daily Telegraph: “Rankings are a useful tool in many ways. But they don’t always show what people think and any university that sets its entire strategy around rankings is likely to regret it.

“In particular, league tables are often better measures of prestige and research than of high-quality teaching. Moreover, the compilers are forever changing their methodologies so they aren’t easy to track even if you want to do so.”

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