Rankings: The good, the bad and the ugly

As we congratulate our Members on their excellent performance, we also take this opportunity to reflect again on the broader role of global rankings
19th August 2020
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The 2020 ARWU Shanghai university rankings were released on 15 August, and new rankings are always a cause célèbre in the university community.

For continental Europe, Université Paris-Saclay takes the top position (fourteenth in the world) followed by ETH Zurich (twentieth). Other CESAER Members in the top 100 include Ghent University (sixty-sixth), Ecole Polytéchnique Fédérale de Lausanne (eighty-third), KU Leuven (ninety-seven) and Université Grenoble Alpes (ninety-nine).

While we congratulate all of our Members on their continuing excellent work, the publication of rankings also provide a good opportunity to reflect on what they actually measure, and their broader purpose and impact.

The methodology of the 2020 ARWU ranking, for example, gives 10% of the score based on ‘total number of the alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals’ and another 20% of the score on ‘number of papers published in Nature and Science between 2015 and 2019’.

While these types of indicators provide one measure of achievement for researchers, one may ask if they recognise and reward the full mission of what universities are and do?

At its best, rankings like this provide a complement to other evaluation practices. One among many opportunities to compare and be inspired.

At its worst, they restrict what universities can do by forcing behavior towards very narrow goals (e.g. steering all activity towards publications in Nature and Science, or securing Nobel prizes at any cost).

To ensure that we as a community stay as close to the best case scenario as possible, I encourage all readers to have another look at the white paper on Next Generation Metrics from earlier this summer.

In this white paper, experienced specialists and leaders from across our network tackle this challenging topic head-on, and provide concrete recommendations for how we - individually and as a community - can and should act and position ourselves.

Take-away high-level messages from the white paper include the importance of acknowledging knowledge as a global public good, and to promote a culture of quality, risk-taking and trust.

When a shiny new ranking flutters past our collective view, we should ask ourselves if it facilitates our pursuit of these higher objectives, which ultimately helps us realise our missions and promote our values. If the answer is yes, then by all means work with and use it. But if not, then we should ensure that we are not distracted for too long.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Mattias Björnmalm, Advisor for Research & Innovation

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