Blame it on the rankings

Serious critique on rankings and league tables. This time not about the flawed methodologies and inaccuracies in the data collection, but on the detrimental effects of rankings. They ‘erode academic vigour’ and they ‘threaten the country’s prosperity’.

In the Guardian, Geoffrey Alderman argues that the league tables lead to grade inflation and a lowering of standards in order for universities to appear high in the rankings:

“How has British higher education got itself into this mess? Part of the answer lies in the league-table culture that now permeates the sector. The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league-table near rivals, and if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes, the argument is put about that “peer” institutions must do the same. The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque “bidding” game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the alter of public image – as reflected in newspaper rankings.”

Alderman however, does not blame it all on rankings and league tables. It’s also the changing student body that is to be blamed. Or more in particular, the funding system that has changed the student body:

“As UK students come to pay a greater proportion of the real cost of their tuition, they view themselves less as clients in the learning process and more as customers with needs to be satisfied. They are less interested in the acquisition of knowledge and of the critical skills needed to evaluate it, and more interested merely in acquiring and regurgitating those segments of knowledge necessary to obtain a degree.”

I think Alderman is a bit too swift in his conclusions and his causal relations. Instead of the race-to-the-bottom thesis you could also argue that league tables lead to a race-to-the-top. That of course does require the rankings to use valid criteria and methods. His argument about the student body doesn’t hold in my opinion. At least the relation isn’t as straightforward as Alderman portrays. The ‘students as customers’ perspective can have a very positive effect on higher education. Since they payed, they want value for their money. They want scheduled classes to proceed, books to be available, lecturers to be prepared and to be involved, facilities to be up to date, etc. Alderman however doesn’t seem to regard the student body very highly. They are reduced to degree seeking individuals.

The second critique comes from Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He blames the lack of maths skills on the rankings and league tables:

“In the race to achieve higher rankings in the tables staff are discouraging pupils from taking mathematics after the age of 16 because the subject is viewed as difficult, and therefore a risk to league positions through examination failures.”

To underline their argument they compared a (1st year students) maths test of “a respected English university” with a Chinese pre-entry test:

Ouch… I don’t think you can blame this all on the rankings, but that hurts…

(thanks to ScienceGuide and Rangkingwatch for pointing me to the articles)

Higher Education and Statistics

The OECD has issued its latest Factbook. The OECD factbook 2007 contains a large amount of indicators on issues ranging from economics to the environment and from population to health. And of course on higher education. Some time ago I’ve been critical about the presentation of some of the OECD higher education statistics, but I must admit that they do a great job in collecting them. The OECD is without doubt the best source for cross-national statistics in the fields of higher education and science & innovation.

But of course you can do a lot with statistics and the media knows that. Just check out this article in the Higher Education section of the Australian:

“Australia’s spending on tertiary education per student went backwards in the eight years after the Coalition came to power, leaving the nation ranked alongside Portugal, Poland and the Slovak Republic.”

That sounds pretty bad… This definitely leaves the impression that funding per student levels in Australia are now behind Portugal, Poland and the Slovak Republic. I checked and… they are just behind the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, clearly above the OECD average and ranking 8th in the OECD member countries. And in the mean time, it has one of the highest attainment rates for young people in the OECD (see graph; click to enlarge). Obviously this journalist only looked at the graphs that were presented on the OECD website and didn’t check any further.

But didn’t it decline then? Yes it did, and yes the commonwealth government should channel more resources to universities if it expects them to be Backing Australia’s Future. I’ve said before that I’m not exactly convinced that the current government is doing a good job in the field of higher education, but still I prefer to stay with the facts.

But what exactly the facts are is also not always clear. Some time ago, the news programme ‘the 7.30 Report‘ featured a debate between Minister Julie Bishop and Labor education spokesman Stephen Smit. I think that they spend half the time talking about the OECD statistics and how bad Australia scores in them:

JULIE BISHOP: Between 1995 and 2007 Federal government funding for higher education has increased by 26%. Now, Stephen keeps trotting out an OECD figure that he knows is flawed, he knows is misrepresenting the situation. There has not been a decline, there’s been an increase.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the OECD Education at a Glance Report 2006 said that Australia’s investment in tertiary education publicly had gone backwards by 7% whereas OECD average was an increase of 48%. Comparison with OECD countries, our investment in tertiary education, we’re 18th.

JULIE BISHOP: I must take issue with the suggestion that our funding has decreased. Stephen knows that figure is dodgy and he keeps trotting it out. Every time he says it doesn’t make it true. We haven’t decreased funding by 7%. The figure he refers to leaves out taxpayer subsidies for HECS, it leaves out the massive injection of funding from 2004 – because the figures back in 2003 he is using, 2004, we, through Backing Australia’s Future, have ensured that universities are $11 billion better off over the next decade. This year they are receiving $8.2 billion from the Federal Government. Our universities are in better financial shape than they’ve ever been in…

Now… who’s right and who’s wrong?

Aussie news bites

Time for some higher education news from down under.

The biggest event the past week was definitely the launch of Melbourne University – New Style. The so-called Melbourne Model is based on six broad undergraduate programs followed by a professional graduate degree, research higher degree or entry directly into employment. In simple terms, what happened is that the old English model was exchanged for the American one. Of course this was accompanied by protests since according to some the university has decided on this move because of a lack of funding and others claim that this is just a measure that makes higher ed more elitist.

I think Glyn Davis, Melbourne’s Vice-Chancellor, made an interesting move by adopting the new model. Considering Melbourne’s good reputation, national and international, it’s also a risky one. There’s already quite some speculation on whether other universities will follow the Melbourne Model in the future. The future will tell, but at least Julie Bishop, the federal Minister for Education has seen her wish come true: finally there’s some more diversity in the Australian higher education landscape.

Also this week, a study came out conducted by Gary Marks for the Australian Council for Educational Research. The study, released today, investigated attrition rates from university courses, background factors that may influence attrition and the labour market consequences of non-completion. Data were collected from a group of young Australians who commenced university study between 1998 and 2001. An analysis of the characteristics of students who fail to complete university courses has found that whether a student attended a government or independent school and their socioeconomic background made little difference to the odds of completing their course. The full report of the study can be downloaded here (pdf).

And then there was another study. Professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales claims to have proved that powerpoint presentations have little power and even less point. According to his report, the brain cannot cope with having too much information thrown at it at once. Having someone speak and point to a screen full of facts and figures at the same time causes it to switch off. Sweller: “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.

Clearly there’s a difference between giving a ppt presentation and giving a good ppt presentation. I guess everyone by now knows that there should not be too much text on a slide and that you shouldn’t read the slide during a presentation. I know not everyone obeys these rules, but ditching powerpoint seems to me a premature conclusion. I wonder whether the guys over in Redmond are getting nervous already…

Good Global Governance?

After all the controversy about World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, the Economist has now opened the attack on Secretary General Angel Gurría of that other global governance institution, the OECD. Since accountability and good governance are some of the main priorities in the OECD, it’s a good thing that publications like the Economists keep a close watch on the internal governance of such international organisations.

Iain Carson, the author of the article, points to a number of issues that leaves some – to say the least -suggestion of nepotism, corruption and excessive compensation. Clearly this is not exactly the desired PR for an organisation like the OECD; it doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that Gurría was very swift in issuing a reaction to the article.

The issues raised mainly related to the excessive expenses for the refurbishment of his apartment, the lack of transparency in an appointment of a top level executive and the appointment of his daughter and a political friend (and spouse). Then there were some issues with soccer tickets and the accusation of favouring the Mexican government. All in all not a pretty picture.

I have complained about the Economist’s tendency to ‘twist‘ the facts before. Here again, the Economist could have been a bit more careful and accurate in their reporting. They omit for instance that Gurría’s daughter was employed for 2 weeks and received a French minimum salary (taxable!) and that he asked her to leave in order to avoid any controversy. On the other hand, he adds that he acted this way following advice that he received; I would guess a person in that position could figure that out himself!

The appointment of his friend was based on his qualifications and the employment of his friends spouse is related to the fact that the OECD has a policy to assist spouses to find a job. Dismissing accusations by passing responsibility to the OECD’s regulations or practices is something that Gurría does rather frequently. The refurbishment of his house – totalling nearly a million Euros – and the salary, compensations and bonuses are all attributed to OECD regulations, Gurría responded. Such a way out seems a bit too easy to me. The issue on the case of favouring Mexico is clearly and easily refuted by Gurría. This should have been reported by Carson!

Summarising: the Economists that deliberately tries to blow up a story by omitting some and exaggerating other information. And a statement of the Secretary General that counters some of the accusations but clearly fails to counter all of them…

One major difference with the Wolfowitz case is that Gurria has the support of his staff

Top 15 Controversial Honorary Doctorates

The tradition of awarding honorary degrees stems from Oxford University. These degrees were first awarded here in the 14th century and were given mostly to academic scholars. Nowadays the recipients range from academics to politicians to artists. Lately there has been quite some controversy about a few universities that had awarded Robert Mugabe an honorary degree. To my knowledge our most popular honorary degree recipients must be dr.dr.dr.dr. Václav Havel and dr.dr.dr. Nelson Mandela. Mandela has at least 30 honorary degrees – next to a long list of other awards. Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, collected at least 46 honorary degrees. Every single one of them well deserved. In the following 15 cases that wasn’t so sure…


Let’s start in Canada. On June 16, 2005 the University of Western Ontario conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Morgentaler, a longtime abortion activist. This decision by UWO’s senate honorary degrees committee generated opposition from Canadian pro-life organizations. Over 12,000 signatures were acquired asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler.


Yusuf Islam (formerly known as singer Cat Stevens) was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Gloucestershire. The year before that he was questioned about his alleged links with terrorists. He endorsed the fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie and refuses to shake the hand of a woman.



My former employer, Twente University decided to award an honorary doctorate to Abdurrahman Wahid (better known as Gus Dur). This was just after he became the first (indirectly) democratically elected president of the Republic of Indonesia. If they had only known that a year later Gus Dur became involved in a corruption scandal (known as the Bulog-gate), a scandal in which Wahid’s masseur and business partner allegedly stole $3.6 million from the state food agency, Bulog. Obviously questions arose within the university whether they should still award him the degree or not. I think they went on with it because Wahid would receive the doctorate for his lifetime work as leader of Indonesia’s largest (moderate) Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama and also because he was not personally involved in the scandal. Whether he ever received the doctorate, I don’t know. I hope he did!! Things became rather quiet after a while….


Another one from Canada. Controversy erupted when Ryerson University conferred an honorary degree on medical ethicist Margaret Somerville. A number of faculty from Ryerson and other universities and students vocally protested Somerville views that children’s rights are violated when they are adopted by same-sex couples.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Superior. The award recognized Schwarzenegger’s contributions to health and fitness, speaking out against prejudice, and creating positive opportunities for inner-city children.


Mike Tyson- Boxer and High School dropout received a Doctorate in Humane Letters in 1989 from Central Ohio State University. Another boxer, George Foreman received an honorary doctorate from the Houston Graduate School of Theology on Saturday for his charity work with children.


Bill Gates – the chairman of Microsoft will get an honorary degree from Harvard on June 7 this year. Maybe not really controversial, but funny considering that Gates once studied mathematics at Harvard but then dropped out after 2 years. But he did fine without the degree…


The University of Queensland in Australia awarded a doctorate to its longest serving State Prime Minister. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen however was not exactly impeccable …he turned out to be a corrupt populist.


Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori‘s honorary doctorate was received in 1992 and revoked in 2001! He received it from his Alma Mater “National Agrarian University” in Peru, where he studied, taught and served as rector. They stripped him of an honorary doctorate for ‘ethical reasons’.


Recent controversy in the Australian National University. They awarded Lee Kuan Yew an honorary doctorate, and – to say it mildly – the faculty weren’t all too happy about that. He is Singapore’s founding father, Prime Minister from 1959-1990 and current ‘Minister Mentor’ under his son Lee Hsien Loong. Well….basically he is Singapore. He brought Singapore a lot of economic prosperity and was a little less concerned with individual liberties, press freedom and academic freedom. On top of all that he stated in the 1980s that Australians were destined to become the “poor white trash of Asia”. The Australians didn’t really appreciate that.


Number 6 is for my own Alma Mater, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. As a University close to the German border they decided to award an honorary doctorate to Helmut Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany. But – just as the other Dutch case at nr.13 – their Doctor to be became involved in a corruption scandal (Das System Kohl)in the Christian Democratic Party CDU. In the end he did receive his honorary doctorate in October 2000.


In 2002, the University of Wolverhampton awarded honorary degrees to glam rockers Slade, whose creative approach to spelling was displayed on 1970s hits such as Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Gudbuy t’Jane.


This one actually shouldn’t be here, since they never got to awarding the honorary degree. The most famous rejection was of Margaret Thatcher, who was snubbed by Oxford academics while she was prime minister. She was the first Oxford graduate turned PM that did not receive the honorary degree…


Then there is of course Robert Mugabe or Dr Dictator. He was awarded honorary degrees by Edinburgh University (1984), the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1986) and Michigan State University (1990). The President of Zimbabwe, was showered with praise when he helped establish the independence of his country, formerly Rhodesia, in 1979 and end white rule when he won the first open elections as prime minister. But a lot can change in 30 years


And the indisputable number 1. In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a puppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage.

Science 2.0

One of my first posts in this blog was on the iBridge Network, a platform for searching and sharing innovations in universities. Universities can use the platform to license and distribute a variety of items, including software, research tools, databases, teaching materials, surveys, and reference materials.

Obviously I was surprised to read on the URENIO website that the iBridge Network was launched at DEMO 07 in January of this year. Well, it appears that the event I posted about 18 months ago was the announcement of the network, while this was the launch of the actual website and platform.

Laura Dorival Paglione, Director of the Kauffman Innovation Network, which manages the iBridge Network explained in her presentation: (b.t.w. sounds a lot like what the CEO was saying 18 months ago doesn’t it? 😉

“Universities are tremendous wellsprings of knowledge. By encouraging widespread access to information and linking researchers with interested parties, we are hoping to more fully realize the innovation potential that research offers.”

The platform started as a pilot for five universities: Washington University in St. Louis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Cornell University and the University of Kansas. The University of Chicago and the University of Arizona have joined a few months after the announcement.

I was a bit skeptical in my first post on this service. Looking at the website now, I think that it might eventually work. A video presentation is available at the DEMO 07 website. With all the share and collaborate features, tag clouds, categories and of course the ubiquitous ‘beta’ indication it looks a lot like Science 2.0. But like any Web 2.0 application, it will be very much dependent on the ‘user generated content’. Let’s see in another 18 months whether scientists are ready for science 2.0…

Yet Another EIT (or EITs)?

A study team led by Peter Tindemans (former Chair of the OECD Megascience Forum) and Luc Soete, Director of UNU-MERIT, a joint research and training centre of United Nations University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands) has proposed yet another structure for the European Institute of technology.

Originally proposed by Commission President José Manuel Barroso as part of the relaunched Lisbon Agenda, the aim of the EIT is to strengthen the European ‘knowledge-triangle’ of research, education and technology. The European Commission first expressed a preference for the EIT as a single institution. After a consultation of a wide range of stakeholders it proposed (pdf) a decentralised network structure in October 2006.

This EIT is organised around six Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). These KIC’s should be seen as joint-ventures of partner organisations representing universities, research organisations and businesses which are intended to form an integrated partnership in response to calls for proposals from the EIT.

Tindemans and Soete find that the decentralized EIT that has been proposed by the Commission is found to be not feasible. It is too dispersed; it would not increase significantly the research output in a field; it cannot match a top tier university in providing an environment for training graduates; and a dispersed institute cannot adequately organize technology transfer. Instead of the decentralised model, they propose a clustered model. One of the major implications seems to be that there will be multiple EITs and that they will be more geared towards the regional context.

While they acknowledge that the underlying rationale for setting up the EIT is critical, they caution against making blanket assumptions about Europe’s inability to convert knowledge into commerce, to organize critical mass, or to reward entrepreneurship and excellence in research and education. The study team cites evidence from the latest European Commission Innovation Scoreboard, which found that several of the smaller European countries and Germany perform significantly better than, or as well as the US and Japan (see below). Not all EU countries, regions and institutions have problems with converting knowledge into commerce and critical mass, rewarding entrepreneurship and excellence in research and education. The authors warn that ignoring this fact might result in assuming too easily that a European level institutional solution is necessary in cases where national or regional approaches might be more appropriate.

(click to enlarge)

The report proposes an alternative that does support existing local strongholds in research, education and innovation. This so-called Cluster EIT would see ambitious and successful regions and universities compete to create strong institutes of several hundred staff at or linked to a strong university, and working closely with industry on problems that determine long-term industrial development. In the case of the US such institutes too are concentrated around elite institutions such as Massachusetts, Stanford, Austin and San Diego.

Another interesting point made by Soete:

“Nobody in the US would think of establishing an AIT (American Institute of Technology) so if we think of creating a European Institute of Technology it should recognize the present strongholds in research, in graduate training and in innovation. Otherwise, it will represent little more than what the French call ‘un saupoudrage’ of undoubtedly substantial additional research monies but which spread over such a wide number of research centres will barely make an impact.”

In their report (pdf) they further explain their recommendation for a ‘cluster EIT’ and also provide the financial aspects of this organisational form (see also the news item from Euractive). I only had a quick look at the report but at first glance I think they make some good points. It seems that the role of the Commission would become more distant in this proposal, while the regions would become more involved in the development of the EITs. I wonder how the Commission will react to these suggestions. A public hearing on the EIT takes place in the European Parliament on 8 May this year.

Reality TV enters Academia

A cross between ‘University Challenge’ and ‘The Apprentice’. That’s how The Times describes a new TV show in India: Scholar Hunt – Destination UK. In the show, students will compete for full scholarhips to the universities of Leeds, Warwick, Cardiff, Sheffield and Middlesex. They will follow the students going through the exams, interviews and other tests for the scholarships. Each of the British universities will award one scholarship for a 3 year degree worth 45000 Pounds.

Arun Thapar, the show’s producer and presenter:

“It’s survival of the fittest, but hopefully this will provide someone with a life-changing opportunity. “We’ll be doing things that will be very engaging. The drama — the laughter and the tears — will be a key part of it.”

Mr Thapar also added that the universities would choose the questions and would not compromise their usual admission standards. The show, which will begin transmitting in India in July, combines the Indian craze for studying overseas with the growing popularity of reality TV. It also reflects the ambitions of British universities to recruit more Indian students in the face of cheaper competition from other Western countries.
According to The Times, NDTV is expecting tens of thousands of students to apply when registration starts via an online test on their website later this month. The top 2,000 applicants will then be filmed sitting exams and the top 200 will be interviewed on camera by a panel including university representatives. The top 100 will enter a studio quiz to select the 20 finalists. Finally, a second studio quiz will choose the five winners.

I tried to have a look at their website. But…it didn’t work. Too popular perhaps?

The Wolfowitz ‘Affairs’

Appointing Wolfowitz as the President of the World Bank in 2005 was a risky decision in the first place. After the severe criticism in the late 1990s (Seattle etc.) the bank was slowly regaining trust, credibility and legitimacy. Putting a political figure like Wolfowitz in charge obviously provoked a lot of criticism from outside the bank but also from within. From outside because of his role in the Iraq war. From within because of his critique on bank officials and the lack of accountability within the World Bank.

But let’s be fair. An organisation that has anti-corruption as its main policy priority can obviously not afford to have a president involved in nepotistic behaviour. And a President of an institution like the World Bank should understand the importance of credibility and legitimacy and should therefore resign.

…but not Mr. Wolfowitz. He vowed to stay on at the bank eventhough the bank’s moral authority is at stake. In the words of the Financial Times:

If the president stays, it risks becoming an object not of respect, but of scorn, and its campaign in favor of good governance not a believable struggle, but blatant hypocrisy. …

No one said international politics is a fair business… For others, this is an opportunity to point the fingers at the World Bank officials and the ‘development industry’ and to turn this into some kind of conspiracy like affair. The Wall Street Journal for instance:

When Paul Wolfowitz became President of the World Bank in 2005, our private prediction was that it would take about a year before the bureaucratic interests at the bank and in the global “development” industry made a play to oust him. We were off by a few months.

The forces of the World Bank status quo are now making their power play, demanding that the bank’s board ask him to resign over an ethics flap involving his girlfriend. The dispute is so trivial that it betrays that this fracas has little to do with Mr. Wolfowitz’s ethics. The real fight here is over his attempt to make the bank and its borrowers more accountable for results, especially by exposing and punishing corruption.

(…) Mr. Wolfowitz has tried to institute more accountability, especially on corruption. Who could be against fighting corruption? Well, for starters, a global poverty industry that thinks “governance” is a distraction from the only real measure of development, which is how much money “rich” nations choose to redistribute to poor ones. Never mind that many of these countries stay poor year after year precisely because they squander or steal foreign aid. “Governance” ought to be a crucial lending criterion, but in trying to make it so Mr. Wolfowitz is bucking decades of old

I indeed think that the ‘global poverty industry’ is in need of transformation. I am sure that not all people involved in development cooperation do this for altruistic reasons. But I am also sure that the most important organisation in this field should not lose its credibility again because one person’s pride or career is at stake.