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Mixed expectations on EU rankings initiatives

Very few recent issues in higher education have stirred up as much controversy and mixed reactions as the proliferation of academic league tables. Recently, an expert committee of the European Parliament stressed that Europe needs its own university ranking in order to encourage competition and boost the EU research profile. In contrast, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) has recently warned in an advice paper that the two current European initiatives in this field—U-Multirank and U-Map—will fail to live up to this expectation, as they fall short of solving the problems they were meant to fix.

U-Map and U-Multirank are two interlinked, EU-funded initiatives. The first is meant to be the European version of the American Carnegie classification, a description of the diversity of institutions on the basis of their activities, while the second attempts to assess how well universities are performing their prescribed roles per U-Map.  This is an intentional departure from rankings based on research-dominated criteria, such as the widely known Shanghai Jiao Tong (ARWU) and THES rankings.

While stressing the “defects,” or better said limitations, of both initiatives, LERU has indicated particular scepticism about the EU ranking attempt because:

  • the proxies used to assess excellence rarely measure the reality or the true benefits of universities to society;
  • gross interpretation errors are likely as statistics from country to country are not comparable;
  • the potential for game playing by institutions is great;
  • the individual dimensions are open to the same criticism as the one-dimensional rankings.  

Nevertheless, despite all these inherent limitations, LERU expressed its support for this initiative  in light of its objective to correct problems of other systems and its stated commitment to justice in European universities by exploring various dimensions of excellence.

The feasibility study, covering both focused institutional rankings and field-based rankings, will be finalised in June 2011.