University rankings are a standard feature in most countries. The rankings resemble a football league table and is always read like one. Rank seems to be the only thing that counts, with relative position in the table attracting more attention than the processes by which the rankings are achieved.

The declared goal of all ranking agencies is to assess quality using a set of indicators which could overlap with each other. Most ranking systems are a three-part process: first, data is collected on indicators; second, the data for each indicator is scored; and, third, the scores from each indicator are weighted and aggregated. Rankings, therefore, are an aggregation of indicators, leading to the total score. This weight-and-sum approach meets the common sense test well and thereby makes university ranking highly marketable.

Chief criteria

Rankers typically choose indicators relating to learning inputs; research; outcomes; reputation. Each indicator is seen as a reasonable proxy for quality and , suitably aggregated and weighted, constitute a plausible, holistic “definition” of quality. By selecting a particular set of indicators and assigning each a given weight, the authors of these rankings often impose a specific definition of quality on the institutions being ranked. Intriguingly, there is hardly any agreement among the authors of these indicators as to what indicates quality, even while the choice of indicators and the weight given to each indicator make a considerable difference to the final output.

Additionally, rankings are based on convenient data. The result is often that ‘teaching quality’— a particularly relevant indicator — gets excluded because obtaining independent, objective measures of teaching quality is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, ‘measured institutional quality’ is not immutable, as an institution’s ranking is largely a function of what the ranking body chooses to measure. No wonder rankings have been met with a mixture of public enthusiasm and institutional unease. Very few league tables do a good job of normalising their figures for institutional size or of using a “value-added” approach to measuring institutions. As a result, they tend to be biased towards larger institutions and institutions with good “inputs”.

Big impact

Underlying the weight-and-sum methodology is the first assumption that all the indicators are mutually supporting and that they all contribute, though not necessarily in equal proportion, to the measurement of academic excellence. In other words, the relationships between the indicators are assumed to be additive. Related to this is the second assumption that the indicators compensate one another such that a weakness in one indicator is made good by strength in another; for instance, having more international students can compensate a poor showing for citation. Third, summing of the raw scores from distributions with different standard deviations does not in any way affect the raw total scores and distort the overall.

Despite these shortcomings, rankings have had an impact far beyond their arbitrary design would warrant. This is because in the highly competitive culture of today, people are trying hard to out-do one another in almost anything, and universities are not spared of this questionable approach. Increasing marketisation of higher education, coupled with greater mobility of students, led to the creation of this psyche where perceived status and reputation are seen as important marketing tools.

These concerns should not be dismissed lightly, because rank consumers have no way of knowing that what they get is often not what they have been promised. University ranking has to be raised to a level of rigorous scientific research. They must (i) clearly spell out what constitutes quality; (ii) empirically identify minimally overlapping indicators to measure quality; (iii) give weights in proportion to the relative importance of the indicator; and (iv) figure out ways to actualise the given weights, without prejudice or bias.

The writer was dean and director-in-charge, IIM- Lucknow, and director, Jaipuria Institute of Management