Rankings play an ever greater role
To be seen in the top listings is becoming increasingly important for universities and interest in rankings is growing fast. However, what do the ranking scores actually say about the quality of an organisation and what importance do the positions have for a university?
KTH recently gained its best ever results in the QS subject rankings – eight subjects in the top 50. Electrical Engineering was the highest ranked, number 19, a position that makes Lars Nordström, Professor of Power System Control, both proud and satisfied.
“It would be difficult for us to climb much higher given our circumstances,” he says.
He believes that such a top position can attract more students and doctoral students to KTH, but warns to pay too much importance to the impact of ranking. “As a researcher, you have a pretty good idea of which individuals and research teams are successful within your subject area, irrespective of how the university in question is ranked,” he says.
“If you become too focused on fine ranking scores, you can lose sight of who is actually leading the way or coming up with exciting new ideas,” he says, and continues:
“The rankings are more relevant and possibly fairer at university and subject level. A high ranking indicates that the university is not a flash in the pan and that it consistently delivers high quality over time.”
Nordström's colleague, Lina Bertling, Professor of Power Grid Technology, stresses the importance of rankings when it comes to recruiting international students, especially from Asia.
“When we present our organisation, this is the key figure we highlight, similar in a way to how we present a role model such as Hannes Alfvén” (Nobel laureate in Physics).
She also emphasises that a high ranking is also a powerful magnet for cooperation, research visits and financing.
Lars Berglund, Professor of Wood and Wood Composites, also feels the importance of ranking is two-pronged. To his mind, while it is incredibly valuable as a recruitment tool, you also need to add other yardsticks when it comes to measuring quality.
“Obviously, it is a blunt tool, but as it has such a big practical importance, we need to work on our ranking and with bibliometrics, that has both a big impact on the rankings and drives quality in terms of major research initiatives.”
Opaque and arbitrary
Berglund’s subject, Materials Science, is ranked 26th in the world, with the potential to climb:
“Materials Science is doing well, despite a complete lack of an organisation as such. It is spread across the whole of KTH without any overall coordination or strategic planning. International competitors often have a broad materials science department or central organisation.”
He cites a British phenomenon where prominent researchers are linked to universities for the purpose of boosting the rankings by associating the name of the university with the researcher’s publications.
“If these researchers do not contribute to the strategic development of the organisation, this is not satisfactory, so I hope this method does not gain traction at KTH.”
Ulf Sandström, an expert in research policy, is sceptical of the methods of the ranking bodies. Especially when it comes to measuring reputations, where researchers and employees score universities in surveys. He sees a lack of clarity in terms of who is chosen to complete these surveys and senses a certain arbitrariness.
This method can favour Asian universities, he argues: “The more authoritarian the system the greater the scope to steer these types of activities”.
“I see that universities move up and down the ranking lists in a way that reflects which universities can involve personnel in activities that pay off in the rankings,” says Sandström, a researcher at the Department of Industrial Economics and Management (ITM).
Growing in importance
KTH has started a working group, led by Deputy President Mikael Östling, tasked with gaining a better understanding of how the parameters that determine ranking results are composed.
“In many instances, we need to get better at visibility and work with our partners and alumni in a more proactive way,” he says.
He views a high ranking as an acknowledgement of the work different research environments at KTH have put in, which provides an indication of whether or not the respective subject can be counted as one of the most prominent.
It can be difficult to say whether a ranking paints a fair picture. If you look at the top ranked universities, research intensive elite universities are rewarded,” he says.
“The question is whether it is possible in reality to make a fair comparison, when universities have different briefs and functions and not least big differences when it comes to resources,” he says, and adds:
“Bearing in mind the rankings are tending to grow in significance, it is important that KTH also continues to rank amongst the highest universities. Naturally, KTH strives to ensure that the education, research and cooperation pursued here is of high quality, which is self-evident if you want to be a high ranked university.”
Text: Christer Gummeson