Ranking universities from best to worst is a lot like trying to rank ice cream flavors. For me, the best ice cream in the world is dulce de leche (obviously). Some people might agree with me, but others might say that chocolate chip cookie dough, rainbow sherbet, or even lemon sorbet (yuck!) are the best. The point is that there is no such thing as the best ice cream in the world because everyone has different tastes and preferences. The same could be said of universities.
If you were to ask me, I would say that the best university in the world is Cambridge. But, having studied there myself, I would say that, wouldn’t I? You might agree with me, or you might not. I could point to the fact that Cambridge has more Nobel prize winners to its name than any other university as an indicator of quality. I could point to the unparalleled resources that are available to doctoral candidates. I could point to the unique supervision system where undergraduate students meet in small groups of less than five with their professors outside of class to discuss material from the lectures. But no matter what I say, others might assert that Oxford, Harvard, or Stanford are superior (as if!).
All university rankings are inherently flawed because all use flawed metrics to measure quality. You can use any number of outcomes, and each configuration will change the rankings, often quite dramatically. When assessing which university is the “best,” you first need to ask yourself, what matters to you most?
“All university rankings are inherently flawed because all use flawed metrics to measure quality. You can use any number of outcomes, and each configuration will change the rankings, often quite dramatically.”
If high quality teaching is a priority, then you should forget about Harvard and instead go to a good liberal arts college, like Williams, Amherst, or Sarah Lawrence. At Harvard, you’ll be taught in large lectures by professors who will never know your name. In a liberal arts setting, you’ll sit in intimate classes of 15 and the professor will remember you even a decade later when you come asking for a letter of recommendation.
On the other hand, if networking with the Power Elite is your thing, or if you want to pursue a career in research, then Harvard or any of the other Ivy League schools would be a better bet. Most liberal arts colleges don’t even offer doctoral degrees anyway.
If you’re interested in social impact above all else, then you’d be better off attending my university, RMIT, than probably any other in the world. We specialize in applied research that can literally change the world for the better. In contrast, many of the older universities pride themselves in the uselessness of their research, where the more esoteric the study, the more value is assigned to it.
I’m not saying that we should disregard university rankings altogether. They can be helpful guides, especially for those unfamiliar with the world of Higher Ed. But I am saying that these rankings, from Times Higher to the ARWU, should be taken with a grain (or two) of salt. Given that there is an infinite number of outcomes that could be used to assess the quality of a university, it follows logically that there could be an infinite number of equally valid university rankings. There is no reason to think that one ranking is any more accurate than another.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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