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International rankings of universities raise numerous questions. How can you fairly compare universities that operate in different countries, with different sources of funds and different missions? Despite the obstacles, several players do such comparisons: Times Higher Education, U.S. News & World Report and QS are three. And despite the concerns of many educators about rankings, they are very popular with international students (and many host countries).

A report being released today by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, raises questions about whether QS has a conflict of interest in its rankings.

QS has a consulting business that helps universities in various ways. The report -- by Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the center -- suggests that the business could be influencing the rankings inappropriately.

Chirikov used Russian universities to make his point. "The analysis is limited to 28 universities that participate in the main QS World University Rankings. In total, 22 of these 28 universities (78 percent) spent $2,857,880 on QS-related services over the last eight years," the report says.

What impact did that have?

To find out, Chirikov compares the fluctuations in QS rankings with data obtained from Times Higher Education and data recorded by national statistics. He then compared rises in rankings of universities that paid QS for consulting and those that did not.

"Results show that universities with frequent QS-related contracts experienced much greater upward mobility in both overall rankings and in faculty-student ratio scores over five years in the QS World Rankings. Positions of Russian universities that had frequent QS-related contracts increased on .75 standard deviations (approximately 140 positions) more than they would have increased without such contracts," the study says. "In a similar way, QS faculty-student ratio scores of Russian universities that had frequent QS-related contracts increased on 0.9 standard deviations more than they would have increased without frequent QS-related contracts. Taken together, these findings suggest that conflicts of interest may produce significant distortions in global university rankings."

Chirikov calls these changes "the first empirical evidence to date that rankers’ conflicts of interest may negatively impact outcomes in university rankings."

He said the results "are novel for higher education, but they are consistent with the numerous studies from the other sectors of the economy suggesting that conflicts of interest lead to biased evaluations."

Asked if other rankings have equal problems, he noted that Times Higher Education and U.S. News take advertising from the universities they rank and hold events for universities. "But the business model of QS is likely to be more vulnerable to conflict of interest because their revenues are more heavily derived from universities. Unlike QS, Times Higher Education/U.S. News also offer substantial subscription-based content for the public, so their revenues are expected to be less dependent on universities alone."

Simona Bizzozero, a spokeswoman for QS, noted via email that contracts universities sign for consulting state that the work covered will not influence rankings. The contracts say, "Please note that the success of this advisory engagement is based on critical knowledge, data and expertise which will be passed to the university team. This has no direct relation to inclusion or improvement in any international rankings and success remains the work and property of the institution and its adaptability of advisory and strategic recommendations. QS adheres to the strictest process integrity, quality control and transparency."

She added that "employees involved in the compilation of our rankings and ratings are expected to adhere to our conflict of interest policy, which emphasizes that QS and its Intelligence Unit are committed to ensuring its research, evaluations, decisions and decision-making processes are, and are seen to be, free from personal or commercial bias and do not unfairly favor any institution or entity that might or might not be connected with QS."

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