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Europe’s U-Multirank unveils pilot results, expects autumn 2011 roll-out

On 9 June, results of a feasibility study for a multi-dimensional ranking of universities known as U-Multirank – were unveiled in Brussels. This project has been funded by the European Commission and developed by the Consortium for Higher Education and Research Performance Assessment (CHERPA), led by the Netherlands-based Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) and the Germany-based Centre for Higher Education (CHE).

The long-awaited test-round results affirm the feasibility of rolling out a multi-dimensional ranking later this year, as well as scaling up to ranking activities at a global level. The two-year pilot project, launched in November 2009, aims to develop a transparency tool capable of filling key information gaps and avoiding the unintended (negative) outcomes that critics say current world university ranking exercises have overlooked. Rather than coming up with a classic league table, U-Multirank allows users – presumably students, higher education administrators and employers – to pick the specific indicators for comparison that are most important to them. When completed, the U-Multirank system is expected to make available data across five different dimensions: 1) teaching and learning, 2) research, 3) knowledge transfer, 4) international orientation and 5) regional engagement, thereby enabling users to compare different aspects of an institution’s performance.

Born out of criticisms of current world university rankings, U-Multirank itself has not been immune to critique, including charges of being overly complicated, Euro-centric and falling into the common trap of measuring what is measurable rather than what is relevant. For example, the fact that two-thirds of the institutions participating in the pilot are from within Europe, plus the lukewarm responses from the US and China, cast doubt on the global reception of the ranking. Meanwhile, the aspiration of the developers to collect data on the relevant but difficult-to-measure dimensions of regional engagement and knowledge transfer is laudable. However, it is unclear if they have been able to achieve the desired outcomes in these areas, given the heavy reliance on data provided by institutions themselves (rather than on secondary sources or peer reviews) for these dimensions, and the difficulty of assuring data consistency or quality at a global level.

Given these challenges, it remains uncertain how U-Multirank will be able to improve upon or complement the current world university rankings. U-Multirank does seem to offer some relief from the standard ‘reputation races’ between institutions, given the absence of a numerical league table approach. However, discipline-based rankings of institutions are certainly possible with the new tool, in addition to rankings across any one or more of U-Multirank’s specific indicators.