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[Editorial] University rankings

As social and political debates on cutting university tuition fees rages on, the restructuring of higher education has emerged as an urgent issue. There is a need to strengthen university finances in general and concentrate state support on more viable institutions.

While the Board of Audit and Inspection is checking the financial, personnel and academic affairs of all 200 four-year universities, the nation’s more prestigious schools are on the alert against having their global rankings affected by the results of the probe. For the last several years, these universities have made extraordinary efforts to get into the global university league tables and move further up the rankings.

Universities accumulated huge special-purpose funds to build research facilities, fatted faculty paychecks to recruit better-known professors and offered scholarships for many foreign students to improve their scores in “globalization.” All these moves were made to raise their global and domestic rankings. Some merged with other schools to prove quantitative growth, risking lower quality of education. These moves all resulted in higher tuition fees, which are now the third most expensive in the OECD.

Their efforts seemed to have paid off. They have moved up the tables, if slightly, in such “authoritative” lists as the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Times Higher Education World University Ranking by Times-Quacquarelli Symonds, and the World’s Best Universities Ranking by the U.S. News and World Report. But was it really worth it, particularly if the rise was achieved at the financial expense of students and their parents and by compromising true academic pursuits?

Last week, the European University Association (EUA) released an extensive review of worldwide university rankings by a group of noted academics. Their conclusion was that “paying too much attention to improving ranking scores can be detrimental to the fulfillment of other important tasks of higher education institutions.” The EUA report warned that higher education policy decisions should not be based solely on rankings.

Primarily, the drawbacks of the ranking services lie in the fact that the global league tables concern the world’s top universities only, covering roughly 1-3 percent of all 17,000 universities in the world. Secondly, the methodologies used in producing the more popular global league tables are applicable only to some 700 to 1,200 universities, according to the EUA report.

Highly ranked universities have to make enormous efforts to move just one notch higher or even to keep their positions in next year’s ranking because their rivals make the same efforts at as much or greater costs. Common practices, the report observed, are trying to include Nobel Prize winners in the faculty; produce more publications (per researcher) ― through one-sided support of research in medicine and natural sciences rather than social sciences and humanities ― and manipulating the student-faculty ratio by expanding the scope of teaching positions.

In Korea, administrators of Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei, Sogang and Ewha universities as well as such research universities as KAIST and POSTEC have all made similar efforts and their strategies have been adopted by second-tier institutions, which are engaged in even stiffer competition in domestic league tables. Tuition fee wars and the looming restructuring of universities will bring the competition to a new height and nobody can tell how they will develop in the days ahead.

The ranking business had the positive effect of promoting transparency in university management, but any such benefit could not make up for the negative, unwanted consequences, the European researchers said. The International Rankings Expert Group under the EUA will conduct an audit of the various ranking systems, which have grown in number in recent years.

Some Korean newspapers, which have compiled rankings of Korean and Asian universities in cooperation with international ranking providers, are called upon to review their survey methodologies and reexamine the justification for drawing up tables in the first place. Universities, for their part, should calmly look back on what true academic mission they had neglected while blindly entering this beauty contest, which is basically a commercial undertaking.
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