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U-Multirank indicators reveal true diversity of universities

Rankings showing that there are many ways to be a strong university should provide lessons for both institutions and governments, says Gero Federkeil.

On 30 March, the second annual edition of U-Multirank, the multidimensional, not-for-profit tool for assessing universities, was published. The number of institutions included has risen from 860 in 2014 to 1,210 in 2015, from more than 80 countries.

U-Multirank provides 31 indicators in five areas: teaching and learning; research; knowledge transfer; international orientation; and regional engagement. For each indicator, institutions are given a score ranging from A for very good to E for weak.

Data come from the universities themselves, from bibliometric and patent databases such as Thomson Reuters and Patstat, and from surveys of more than 85,000 students at participating universities—one of the largest such samples in the world. There are bibliometric and patent data for every institution, and more than 680 institutions provided data across all five areas 

The results reinforce the merits of a multidimensional approach to university ranking, emphasising that there is no ‘number one’ university in the world. Some 99 per cent of universities scored A on at least one indicator, and 42.2 per cent achieved five or more A scores. However, only 8.2 per cent got 10 or more A scores, and none got the top mark for all indicators.

The universities that achieved 10 or more A scores had very different profiles. Some excelled mainly in research, some in knowledge transfer and some in teaching and learning. U-Multirank allows institutions to show their specific strengths, and avoids one-dimensional league-table comparisons.

Coverage is most comprehensive—although not yet complete—in Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Finland, Portugal and Romania. Here, the results are helping policymakers to understand their higher education systems.

U-Multirank also gives an international perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of national institutions, thus helping governments to avoid misguided investments in pursuit of ‘world-class’ research universities. Institutions already using U-Multirank data for benchmarking include members of the Conference of European Schools for Advanced Engineering Education and Research, a network of technical universities.

For the 2015 edition, the U-Multirank consortium introduced a number of features to enhance the quality of the data and data verification. For example, more than 30 automatic plausibility checks were built into online questionnaires, so that institutions got immediate feedback if they entered implausible or inconsistent data.

Some useful and relevant indicators, however, remain difficult to obtain or to compare across borders, highlighting the lack of comprehensive and verified international data sets on higher education. In particular, data on graduate employment rates and on universities’ contribution to their regions are either lacking or not fully comparable across countries.

Two reports by the European University Association provide evidence of this issue. On the one hand, a rankings review published in 2013 said that the indicators covered by U-Multirank were the most relevant for strategic management. But on the other hand, a report published earlier this year, based on a survey of U-Multirank participants, revealed that many institutions lacked readily available data on these particular indicators. The U-Multirank consortium will continue to explore ways to make it easier for institutions to provide the relevant data.

For the 2016 edition of U-Multirank, which will be published next March, we aim to include 200 additional institutions with full data sets. Six fields will also be added: mathematics, chemistry and biology will extend the coverage of science, while the addition of sociology, history and social work will mean that the social sciences and humanities are included for the first time.

There will also be a special focus on recruiting more institutions from outside Europe. In the 2015 edition, 57 per cent of the participating universities were from Europe, with 18 per cent from Asia, 16 per cent from North America and the remaining 9 per cent from Africa, Latin America and Oceania.

The U-Multirank consortium is led by the Centre for Higher Education in Germany and two Dutch institutions: the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente and the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University. The project is supported by the European Commission and has €4 million from the Erasmus+ programme for 2013-17. The ultimate goal is for an independent, not-for-profit organisation to manage the ranking as an open source for international comparisons.

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Gero Federkeil is the coordinator for U-Multirank (www.umultirank.org). He works at the Centre for Higher Education in Gütersloh, Germany.  

This article also appeared in Research Europe