Published: 30 Oct 12 11:16 CET | Print version
With policies changing on charging foreign students in Sweden, there is greater need for the country's universities to build on their already glowing international reputations. Some of the most helpful indicators of academic excellence are the various international university rankings.
For Sweden’s educational establishments, and for Stockholm University in particular, this system of grading has been a major factor in maintaining their appeal to students abroad, as they continue to perform well in all categories of global rankings.
In turn, such publications have attracted interest in the media, at a political level and within the schools themselves.
“Rankings are important in part because the media write about them, in part because they can be used by universities in various marketing exercises and in part because they help shape our perception of our own and other universities,” says Stockholm University Professor Gunnar von Heijne.
“On the downside they may lead university leaders to adopt policies designed to boost a particular ranking, regardless of other consequences,” he adds.
One particular drawback is that by its very nature such a ranking system is not scientifically provable. In some cases they have reflected unfairly on schools which may intentionally excel in a certain area or discipline.
“Rankings are what they are: a collection of statistics that someone has decided are important quality measures, all rolled into a single index by weighting and combining them in a way that someone has decided is a good way,” says von Heijne.
It is this “good way” which is sometimes open to heated debate in what is an extremely competitive sector. The three most influential and widely observed international university rankings are the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
The best known - the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) - commonly known as the Shanghai Ranking, was founded and compiled for the first time in 2003, by the Shanghai Jiaotong University. Backed by the Chinese government, the publication - which has been updated on an annual basis for nine years now - was initially designed "to provide a global benchmark" against the various universities in China so they could assess their progress, with a strong emphasis on the various scientific disciplines.
The complex methodology used by the Shanghai Ranking is largely academic and research-oriented, with a formula that takes into account alumni winning prestigious awards such as Nobel Prizes, as well as the number of papers and other works published in reputable journals.
Research for the list covers 12,000 universities around the world, while the final index includes the top 500 centres of higher education.
To appreciate how influential the Shanghai Ranking is, you can look towards France as a case in point. So concerned about the country’s standing in this league table, the government precipitated a rethink on how French universities were run.
The ARWU, led by four American universities - Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Berkeley, is a publication that has seen Stockholm University gradually climb on an almost annual basis.
The latest index in 2012 placed it at number 81 globally. Meanwhile in terms of individual categories, Stockholm University once again scored highly, in 47th place for its chemistry department, the highest in the country.
In the field of science and technology, it is the highest ranked Swedish university, placed in the 76-100 range. No other Swedish universities are among the top 100 in this area.
This is of great relevance to Stockholm University, which wants to maintain its leading reputation in its specific field of excellence. “The ranking of universities within sub-fields like chemistry, physics, social sciences and others is probably more meaningful than the wholesale ranking of universities,” says Gunnar von Heijne.
“Science is an intrinsically international activity,” he adds. “Scientists collaborate across borders, compete for funding and recognition across borders. Universities collaborate across borders; compete for the best scientists and for funding across borders. Universities increasingly compete for the best students across borders. So if ranking lists should have any meaning at all, they have to be international.”
Meanwhile, other rankings hold Stockholm University in similarly high esteem. The most recent QS World University Rankings places it at 171 overall for 2012, its best position bar one, since 2005.
Its major strength, according to QS, is in Arts & Humanities (83), with Social Sciences and Management close behind at 84.
The third metric, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, puts the Swedish capital at 117 overall, behind Karolinska, Uppsala and Lund. What will not have gone unnoticed in the corridors of Stockholm University is that individually it scored highest for its international outlook and number of citations.
While the validity of these rankings will continue to be disputed in some corners, they provide an excellent marketing tool for others.
Stockholm, as both a city and a seat of learning, already enjoys a fine reputation, so it is little wonder that the university is keen to capitalise on the indirect promotional support it receives from these rankings.
It has much to gain from continuing to do so in the coming years, as the competition to attract the elite of world students becomes even more intense.
Article sponsored by Stockholm University
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