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A case for free, timely access to world university rankings data
September 13, 2010 - 11:00pm

Well, the 2010 QS World University Rankings® were released last week and the results are continuing to generate considerable attention in the world's media (link here for a pre-programmed Google news search of coverage).

For a range of reasons, news that QS placed Cambridge in the No. 1 spot, above Harvard, spurred on much of this media coverage (see, for example, these stories in Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Al Jazeera). As Al Jazeera put it: "Did the Earth's axis shift? Almost: Cambridge has nudged Harvard out of the number one spot on one major ranking system."

Interest in the Cambridge over Harvard outcome led QS (which stands for QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd) to release this story ('2010 QS World University Rankings® – Cambridge strikes back'). Do note, however, that Harvard scored 99.18/100 while QS gave Cambridge 100/100 (hence the 1/2 placing). For non-rankings watchers, Harvard had been pegged as No 1 for the previous five years in rankings that QS published in association with Times Higher Education.

As the QS story notes, the economic crisis in the US, as well as the reduction of other US universities with respect to their share of "international faculty," was the main cause of Harvard's slide:


In the US, cost-cutting reductions in academic staff hire are reflected among many of the leading universities in this year’s rankings. Yale also dropped 19 places for international faculty, Chicago dropped 8, Caltech dropped 20, and UPenn dropped 53 places in this measure. However, despite these issues the US retains its dominance at the top of the table, with 20 of the top 50 and 31 of the top 100 universities in the overall table.


Facts like these aside, what we would like to highlight is that all of this information gathering and dissemination -- both the back-end (pre-ranking) provision of the data, and the front end (post-ranking) acquisition of the data -- focuses the majority of costs on the universities and the majority of benefits on the rankers.

The first cost to universities is the provision of the data. As one of us noted in a recent entry ('Bibliometrics, global rankings, and transparency'):


Data demands are becoming very resource consuming for universities. For example, the QS template currently being dealt with by universities around the world shows 14 main categories with sub-categories for each: all together there are 60 data fields, of which 10 are critical to the QS ranking exercise, to be launched in October 2010. Path dependency dynamics clearly exist for once the pipelines are laid the complexity of data requests can be gradually ramped up.


Keep it mind that the data is provided for free, though in the end it is a cost primarily borne by the taxpayer (for most universities are public). It is the taxpayer that pays the majority of the administrators’ salaries to enable them to compile the data and submit it to the rankers.

A second, though indirect and obscured cost, relates to the use of rankings data by credit rating agencies like Moody’s or Standards and Poors in their ratings of the credit-worthiness of universities. We’ve reported on this in earlier blog entries (e.g., '‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities'). Given that cost of borrowing for universities is determined by their credit-worthiness, and rankings are used in this process, we can conclude that any increase in the cost of borrowing is actually also an increase in the cost of the university to the taxpayer.

Third, rankings can alter the views of people (students, faculty, investors) making decisions about mobility or resource allocation, and these decisions inevitably generate direct financial consequences for institutions and host city-regions. Given this it seems only fair that universities and city-region development agencies should be able to freely use the base rankings data for self-reflection and strategic planning, if they so choose to.

A fourth cost is subsequent access to the data. The rankings are released via a strategically planned media blitz, as are hints at causes for shifts in the placement of universities, but access to the base data -- the data our administrative colleagues in universities in Canada, the US, the UK, Sweden, etc., supplied to the rankers -- is not fully enabled. Rather, this freely provided data is used as the basis for:


the development of ancillary services and benchmarking capabilities that can be sold back to universities, funding councils, foundations, regional organizations (e.g., the European Commission which is intensely involved in benchmarking and now bankrolling a European ranking scheme), and the like.


Consider, for example, this Thomson Reuters statement on their Global Institutional Profiles Project website:


The first use of the data generated in the Global Institutional Profiles Project was to inform the Times Higher Education World University Ranking. However, there are many other services that will rely on the Profiles Project data. For example the data can be used to inform customized analytical reporting or customized data sets for a specific customer’s needs.

Thomson Reuters is developing a platform designed for easy access and interpretation of this valuable data set. The platform will combine different sets of key indicators, with peer benchmarking and visualization tools to allow users to quickly identify the key strengths of institutions across a wide variety of aspects and subjects.


Now, as QS's Ben Sowter put it:


Despite the inevitable efforts that will be required to respond to a wide variety of enquiries from academics, journalists and institutions over the coming days there is always a deep sense of satisfaction when our results emerge. The tension visibly lifts from the team as we move into a new phase of our work – that of explaining how and why it works as opposed to actually conducting the work.

This year has been the most intense yet, we have grown the team and introduced a new system, introduced new translations of surveys, spent more time poring over the detail in the Scopus data we receive, sent out the most thorough fact files yet to universities in advance of the release – we have driven engagement to a new level – evaluating, speaking to and visiting more universities than ever.


The point we would like to make is that the process of taking "engagement to a new level" -- a process coordinated and enabled by QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd and Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters -- is solely dependent upon universities being willing to provide data to these firms for free.

Given all of these costs, access to all of the base data beyond the simple rankings available on websites like the THE World University Rankings 2010 (due out on 16 September), or QS World University Rankings Results 2010, should be freely accessible to all.

Detailed information should also be provided about which unit, within each university, provided the rankers with the data. This would enable faculty, students and staff within ranked institutions to engage in dialogue about ranking outcomes, methodologies, and so on, should they choose to. This would also prevent confusing mix-ups such as what occurred at the University of Waterloo (UW) this week when:


UW representative Martin van Nierop said he hadn’t heard that QS had contacted the university, even though QS’s website says universities are invited to submit names of employers and professors at other universities to provide opinions. Data analysts at UW are checking the rankings to see where the information came from.


And access to this data should be provided on a timely basis, as in exactly when the rankings are released to the media and the general public.

In closing, we are making a case for free, open and timely access to all world university rankings data from January 2011, ideally on a voluntary basis. Alternative mechanisms, including intergovernmental agreements in the context of the next Global Bologna Policy Forum (in 2012), could also facilitate such an outcome.

If we have learned anything to date about the open access debate, and 'climategate', greater transparency helps everyone -- the rankers (who will get more informed and timely feedback about their adopted methodologies), universities (faculty, students & staff), scholars and students interested in the nature of ranking methodologies, government ministries and departments, and the taxpayers who support universities (and hence the rankers).

Inspiration for this case comes from many people, as well as the open access agenda that is partly driven on the principle that taxpayer funded research generates research outcomes that society should have free and open access to, and in a timely fashion. Surely this open access principle applies just as well to university rankings data!

Another reason society deserves to have free, open and timely access to the data is that a change in practices will shed light on how the organizations ranking universities implement their methodologies; methodologies that are ever changing (and hence more open to error).

Finer-grained access to the data would enable us to check out exactly why, for example, Harvard deserved a 99.18/100 while Cambridge was allocated a 100/100. As professors who mark student papers, outcomes this close lead us to cross-check the data, lest we subtly favour one student over another for X, Y or Z reasons. And cross-checking is even more important given that ranking is a highly mediatized phenomenon, as is clearly evident this week betwixt and between releases of the hyper-competitive QS vs THE world university ranking schemes.

Free, open and timely access to the world university rankings data is arguably a win-win-win scenario, though it will admittedly rebalance the current focus of the majority of the costs on the universities, and the majority of the benefits on the rankers. Yet it is in the interest of the world's universities, and the taxpayers who support these universities, for this to happen.



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