Measures of a Quality Education, Role of University Rankings

Ted Purinton, associate provost for academic administration and international programs, examines the fundamental measures of a quality education for universities, the difference between liberal arts and research-based institutions, accreditation and rankings.


1) What are the most important measures of a quality education for a university?

It depends on whom you ask. A common policy debate in countries across the world is whether education is a public or private good. As students, we tend to assume the benefit is individual: Quality education is useful in getting a job, increasing social status and so forth. Policymakers assume the benefit is sociopolitical: Quality education is useful for increasing country productivity and social equity, or social cohesion and political solidarity. Depending on one's perspective, quality education should be measured by cost efficiency relative to employment; and from another perspective, it should be measured by overall intellectual output. When it comes to global trends in higher education, universities are caught in the middle of the public-private debate. They want to contribute to human development and career skills; they also want to attract highly qualified students who raise institutional status; and they want to be seen in their countries as essential societal institutions. Thus, recently, the most important indicators include student selectivity, reputation and research output. Whether or not those indicators are appropriate for the various individual and societal expectations of universities, they at least assume that a good university will be an elite one.

2) Do each of these measures weigh differently in their importance? How?

Increasingly, research impact is seen as the most important quality indicator in higher education. Research impact is typically measured by awards such as the Nobel Prize, research grant income and paper citations (good research papers are cited more by other researchers). While research impact does not directly affect educational quality, it serves the educational mission of a university in two distinct ways: First, it informs teaching with the latest and most advanced knowledge; second, it increases university reputation, thus making research-intensive universities more selective. But research does not have a direct and immediate impact on teaching quality, and in many highly ranked research universities, faculty members who do the best research teach the least. Thus, countries that have focused on building their higher education systems and institutions up only by way of increasing research productivity may still face significant challenges in increasing the employment and income of their citizens. So other countries look instead to measures that focus on teaching quality, intellectual rigor and workforce skills. Such measures include employer reputation, student retention, percentage of international faculty and so forth. But when it comes to global university rankings, research still trumps instruction.

3) How important are rankings in the measure of a quality education?

Rankings schemes have been criticized since they were conceived. The main trouble with rankings is their homogenization effect on universities. Rather than permitting universities to adapt to their student markets, local economies, cultural preferences and so forth, rankings have caused universities to pursue paths that are nearly identical. Ideally, a country should foster a mixture of institutional types within its higher education landscape: research universities, selective teaching institutions, general teaching institutions, trade schools/community colleges and variations between these. To answer this question in a different way, rankings are important as a measure generally if a university seeks to increase its rank. However, universities that are confident that what they are doing is the right approach for their individual niches care much less about the rankings.

4) Why are there different types of rankings? How are they different?

University rankings came about because there has always been a desire on the part of students, their parents, employers and governments to identify (and, in a sense, reward) high-quality universities. Journalists were the first to take note, and a few publications quickly recognized how popular –– and profitable –– university rankings could be. Some countries and a few universities have, in an effort to prioritize different measures, also developed new rankings schemes. To date, there are a few widely cited global rankings schemes that each weigh certain measures a bit differently. On a regional perspective, only one publisher ranks universities in the Middle East, and this one focuses exclusively on research impact, but from a very narrow perspective and, unfortunately, on an extremely limited database of publications. Other publishers plan to add exclusive Middle East rankings, and we will wait to see what measures they include.

5) Who has a say or input in these rankings?

Most rankings schemes have been developed without significant input from universities, employers or governments. Typically, when a ranking scheme comes out, massive criticism of methodology, usually made by the universities, forces schemes to change. It is tempting for rankers to base their schemes on easily accessible data, which is why research often is the first criterion. Likewise, data that come from the universities themselves, or from employers, is hard to obtain and, therefore, less appealing to the rankers.

6) What is the best way to make use of the different rankings available?

For research quality, rankings can give us valuable information about the impact and productivity of the top universities. Indeed, the schemes have created a self-reinforcing system. If a university is ranked well one year, its reputation by peers and employers will be maintained, often just because peers and employers saw the high ranking. In other words, we are all very subconsciously affected by the rankings, whether we agree with their methodologies or not. Beyond that, I find that rankings schemes provide very little useful information. From personal experience, the differences between universities, on a global level, ranked even a few hundred spaces apart, are never accurately portrayed in the score differences. I have visited universities that are ranked in the 100s on certain schemes that have clearly terrible teaching quality and very low student satisfaction. Conversely, I have visited universities that are not even ranked that have exceedingly strong employer reputation, high student satisfaction, innovative teaching and so forth. The advice I would give to someone looking for a good university is to focus most intently on what she or he wants to get out of it. Universities were never intended to be one-size-fits-all.

7) How does AUC rank?

AUC has ranked high on some schemes and moderately on others. When it comes to quality educational measures, we do very well. For example, on Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a global ranker, we are ranked very high in the region and in Africa, and globally we are at 360.

8) How does accreditation matter?

It doesn't. We indeed are in a very strong global position as a university with U.S. accreditation, as well as specialized accreditations in many of our schools and programs. For example, the School of Sciences and Engineering maintains ABET accreditation in many of its programs –accreditation that is very rigorous and globally recognized. The School of Business also is "triple crown" accredited –– accreditation from three of the most important business accreditation agencies; this is an honor only bestowed on about 50 or so universities in the world. But accreditation does not influence rankings. It does, however, ensure that a university or an academic program is following best practice and maintaining ethical standards in evaluation and quality control.

9) How does a liberal arts institution differ in its mission from a research institution?

How does this affect the quality of education? Fundamentally, a liberal arts college emphasizes broad-based learning goals, not specific to any particular career path. In practice, American research universities still follow paradigms of the liberal arts by mandating breadth before depth, such as core or general education courses prior to specialization within majors. A traditional liberal arts university will tend toward smaller class sizes, and the faculty will be encouraged to put more emphasis into their teaching than to their research, even though research (i.e., publishing in peer reviewed journals or academic presses) is still required in order to ensure that knowledge within the institution is up-to-date and relevant. A research institution in the United States will still require a broad-based curriculum prior to specialization, and many of the tenets of a liberal arts education can still be seen within research institutions. The main distinction is that faculty members are incentivized to publish a lot more, and, thus, they spend a bit less time on teaching. By contrast, in Europe, very few teaching or research institutions require a broad curriculum prior to specialization. As indicated in the response to a previous question, universities are not one-size-fits-all. Each student will invariably want something specific and unique out of a university education. Many students want greater independence, and thus they may choose a large research institution. Others, however, may desire a more personalized approach, and thus, they may choose a liberal arts institution. And there are many variations in between. Increasingly, liberal arts universities are adding professional programs or research centers and graduate degrees. Likewise, many large research universities have created smaller programs that emulate a liberal arts mission. The point is that universities are constantly evolving, and in many ways, quality is not at all related to the institutional type. The diversity of types is, in itself, a very good thing. The question really should be whether or not the university is achieving what it says it intends to achieve. Unfortunately, if we were to look just at the rankings, we would get the message that diversity of type is not welcome.

10) How does AUC see itself?

AUC historically has been a liberal arts institution. And as indicated above, as universities adapt to their changing societies, AUC too has adapted. AUC now has a very strong set of graduate and professional programs and, indeed, it has a solid PhD program. AUC is home to a wide range of stellar researchers. But ultimately, AUC sees itself as a student-focused institution, which often connotes a liberal arts approach. But traditional liberal arts institutions are quite rare now. AUC's approach, which adds professional and graduate programs, has become quite common. AUC's mission statement clearly reflects this sentiment.