U-Multirank aims to correct a perceived bias towards research performance.
Plans to roll out a new system of rankings for Europe's universities to encourage international comparison will be outlined next week at a conference in Dublin. The system, called U-Multirank, has been developed with funding from the European Union. It aims to correct a perceived bias towards research performance in other international rankings, and so present a more balanced picture of university activities.
The goal is to persuade at least 500 universities to opt into the first phase of the system. Most will be from Europe, with a small number of international institutions included for comparison. The first ranking would be published early in 2014. The perceived research bias of existing rankings – principally the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Times Higher Education World University Ranking – is seen as problematic because it fails to recognise that universities may have other goals and their users may have other priorities. The EU initiative aims to bring out these other university activities and allow institutions to be compared accordingly.
U-Multirank will rate universities according to their research reputation, teaching quality, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer and regional engagement. Each area will be assessed with scores on up to ten indicators, such as, for teaching, student graduation and employment rates, and, for knowledge transfer, the number of patents registered and companies started.
Unlike existing rankings, this information will be supplied or checked by the universities themselves, hence the need for them to opt into the system. While a potential burden, this is seen by the Commission as an advantage of the system. “This should not be something which is done to universities, but done with them,” says Adam Tyson, the official overseeing the project.
Another advantage is the production of personalised rankings. “Prospective bachelor students, for example, can put more weight on teaching and learning in order to produce their own list,” says Tyson.
Equally a company might want to see how well universities know their local market through regional engagement. In addition to looking at entire institutions, the system will allow rankings by academic discipline. The initial fields will be business studies, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and physics.
The project has been allocated €2 million for 2013-14 from the EU education programme, with the possibility of a two-year extension if necessary to establish the system. After that, it must become financially independent.
Rankings are not popular with the higher education community, because of the research bias and a feeling that indicators are often inadequate proxies for complex activities.
The possibility that U-Multirank offers an alternative has been cautiously welcomed in some quarters, but rejected in others. The League of European Research Universities, which represents 21 elite institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, left the U-Multirank pilot project and remains opposed to its implementation, particularly with public funds.
Meanwhile the European University Association is reserving judgement until it hears more about plans to implement the project.
In addition to hosting the launch of U-Multirank, the conference organised in Dublin by the Irish presidency of the Council of Ministers will examine user perspectives on rankings in general and other approaches to evaluating university activities. Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.
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