Here is a short interview on university rankings that I have given for the Spanish leading newspaper El País:
Do you think the university rankings are necessary?
Media, the public, and politicians are extremely interested by the publication of university rankings. This proves that they fulfill an information need and thus that they are necessary. People want to know where to study, where to send their children to study, or just to know whether their past choice of a particular university was good enough.
Do you think the most famous university ranking (ARWU, THE, QS) are well built?
Rankings crucially depend on the data available for building them. Thus, the availability of relevant data determines the degree of relevance of the rankings. I have previously publicly criticized that the ARWU cannot be reproduced based on the methodology published by its authors. This situation is caused by the uncertainties in the data that the ARWU uses; by obscuring the methodology, they probably hope to escape the potentially many requests or criticisms related to the accuracy of that data. However, the accuracy of the data depends on the available resources for collecting it, and thus the creators of these rankings should not be blamed about it, since they provide the rankings for free.
An ideal ranking could theoretically be assembled using the feedback from all university alumni or from their employers, or by counting the salaries of all graduates in the few years after graduation. This data would be extremely hard and costly to collect. Until we are prepared to pay for collecting this kind of data, I think that we should be happy with the current rankings. They evolve permanently in order to improve their relevance. Many rankings are focused on the scientific papers published by universities because this data is easily available through existing databases and quality of research is an important indicator of the general quality of an university.
Do you think the rise of the popularity of the ranking is beneficial for universities?
Yes, rankings help universities to compare themselves to their peers and could motivate them to improve their quality, being thus beneficial. However, it is not beneficial if they focus on just gaming the indicators used in current rankings. I believe that most universities are smart enough to not do just that. The ones that focus on the quality of education received by their students and on the quality of their research will improve their position in the rankings more than the ones that focus on just gaming the indicators, because any improvement of the latter can appear on durations of the order of 3-5 years. In this time, it is likely that rankings evolve and adjust their indicators.
It could be unfair for the universities?
Yes, rankings could sometimes be unfair for a minority of universities, because their indicators inevitably reflect just some aspects of academic life. This is inevitable and could be improved only if we support the costs of collecting more relevant and accurate data to be used in the rankings.
Here is the El País article: Los ‘rankings’ imponen su ley a la Universidad, 12.11.2010.