University Librarian Dr. Lokman Meho knows everything there is to know about the yearly league tables issued by QS, Times HigherEd, and other ranking agencies.
December 6, 2020
Do university rankings really matter, and if so, why?
Positive rankings can matter when people start talking about them, and they influence decisions. For instance, if rankings influence a student to attend a certain school, or if employers are influenced by good rankings to hire certain graduates.
Rankings also matter to trustees and administrators as a way to ask, “how well are we doing, and what do we need to do better?" They can provide valuable information to help identify gaps. Many administrators use rankings as benchmarks to compare themselves to peer and aspirant institutions and to analyze why another university might be doing better in a specific category.
What kind of information do rankings provide?
Although not a complete picture, rankings give an idea of how well a university is adding to world knowledge, to what extent international faculty and employers appreciate its teaching and research performance, and how visible the university is internationally. Rankings also report about the diversity of the students and faculty and the resources allocated to both.
Can rankings be abused?
I would say they give advantage to some institutions over others. For instance, a university might rank very high for its proportion of international students and faculty, but it might not be the quality of education that attracted those internationals. It might be because of the high number of ex-pats already working in the country, whose children get counted as “international." Or the university might pay extremely well, which attracts international faculty. In some cases, researchers join large international teams and manage to get full credit for publications and citations even if they contributed very little or nothing to a project.
Another indicator that can be confusing is student-to-faculty ratio. A low ratio usually speaks to the university's commitment to high quality teaching, but who can tell exactly how the ratio is determined? How faculty members are counted matters. Are they full-time professors, lecturers, or clinicians? Sometimes the numbers don't reflect the reality in the classroom.
What is a ranking that you pay attention to?
I like the “employer reputation" ranking because it's based on a survey that goes to over 50,000 employers around the world to identify the universities from which they employ the most competent, innovative, and effective graduates. When AUB ranks near the top one hundred (#108) in the world, that tells you a lot about the quality of education and faculty we provide. Personally, I like rankings that rely on surveys, like the one that goes to 100,000 people to rank the quality of teaching and research. I also like rankings that take the number of faculty and students into consideration. Rankings that disregard size put smaller universities at a disadvantage.
Do universities value the ranking systems?
I think all universities pay attention to them. I visit many university websites worldwide, and I do a lot of research on rankings. I haven't seen a single top university
not mention them. Look under “About Us," and you will find something there, often under “Facts and Figures" or even “Rankings." Although many universities pretend they don't care, they are paying attention.
How do we use the information, and what does it tell us about AUB?
Primarily we want to see where we are doing well and where we can improve, and in the last ten years, AUB has improved significantly in all well-established ranking systems. In the Shanghai Ranking, for instance, before 2018, we weren't even listed, and now we are. In the Leiden Ranking, we weren't there five years ago, but we've been regularly there since 2016. We are unusual for the Arab world. In the QS rankings, we have consistently been there among the top 300 for the past 10 years or so, moving to #220 in the world in 2021. Now we need to maintain and keep improving. Lebanon is not an industrial country. It's a country of limited resources and does not support private universities such as AUB. The great majority of universities in neighboring countries get significant support from government and large industry. Although we lack all that kind of support, we still do very well.
What challenges do you see?
Maintaining our current rankings and improving will be really challenging because of the economic and political situation. How do we keep high quality students and faculty and have available funds for research and for building good infrastructure? AUB is doing as much as possible to keep the best and brightest students, faculty, and staff, to increase scholarships, to diversify sources of income, and to maintain its reputation, but also to improve in spite of challenges.
Is there any good news?
Think about this, in spite of our relatively small size, lack of support from government and industry, and the challenges in our country, we continue to rank among the top two universities in the Arab world. When compared against our remarkable peer institutions in the United States, we sit in the middle of the group. To me, rankings are external confirmation that we are succeeding in our mission and our goals.
Link to AUB rankings: https://www.aub.edu.lb/AboutUs/Pages/ranking.aspx