University rankings: Double-edged sword?

SINGAPORE – University ranking season is back once more, but the annual exercise has come under a cloud this year, even as Singapore’s institutions continue to do well in the global league tables. 

Yale and Harvard law schools’ decision on Thursday to cease being part of an influential rankings list followed an earlier controversy where another top US university admitted to submitting inaccurate data, reopening debate over the real-world utility of university rankings.

Insight looks at why college rankings continue to be closely watched by everyone from administrators to prospective students, and what is being done here to widen the metrics by which universities are judged.

A growing influence despite controversies

Last week, two of the most reputable law schools in the world said on the same day that they would stop participating in an annual rankings exercise, charging that the methodology being used was profoundly flawed.

Harvard said the US News and World Report’s law school rankings rely on a student debt metric that incentivises schools to admit better-off students who do not need to borrow, while pushing them to use financial aid to attract high-scoring students, rather than on those with greatest need.

Yale, meanwhile, said the rankings penalised schools that encourage their students to pursue public service careers over higher-paying jobs by characterising them as “low-employment schools with high debt loads”, which it slammed as a backward approach.

While these are potential red flags of perverse incentives for schools trying to climb the leaderboards, Columbia University admitted in September that it had submitted inaccurate data to US News, after a member of its faculty questioned its meteoric rise up the rankings.

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The Ivy League institution said it had previously provided incorrect undergraduate class size and faculty qualifications data and would sit out this year’s rankings submissions. That did not stop US News from still ranking the school, which fell from 2nd to 18th place.

The topic of university rankings – and whether local institutions rise or fall every year – remains a hot one, given the Singapore psyche of tracking global rankings as a method of validation – whether of its airport or something more intangible like the city state’s business competitiveness.

News last month that the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) continued to progress up the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings drew collective cheer online, while reports last week that the two universities slipped in the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking of Asia’s universities were met with angst in some quarters.

This is despite such rankings paying limited or no attention to criteria such as quality and innovation in education, or how a university enriches the local community, said Emeritus Professor Arnoud De Meyer, who was previously president of the Singapore Management University (SMU).

“I don’t believe at all in rankings that use opinions or perceived standing in the academic community as a major input,” he said – a metric used by both THE and QS.

The debate over whether local universities are too focused on such rankings over other measurements is not new, but is also not a settled question.


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