How should we rank universities?

I live down the road from the University of California (UC) Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley is quite well-known and has a good reputation, including being rated the best public university in the USA. Their website also lists the national ranking of all their ‘graduate’ (PhD) programs (including lots of firsts, seconds and thirds).

But what do these rankings reflect?

I have always thought there was a disconnect in traditional university ranking systems. Because they tend to rank university’s research outputs (academic publications and the like), rather than the quality of the education that is offered. Obviously, the former offers much easier comparison than the latter, but a perverse incentive is created that encourages disproportional investment in the graduate/PhD program compared to the undergraduate program.

This issue is on my mind because I have recently learned that UC Berkeley biology and chemistry undergraduate students do not attend ‘practical’ or ‘laboratory’ classes during their degrees.

I have fond memories of synthesising aspirin in the chemistry lab or looking at drosophila under the microscope in biology (the different coloured eyes are caused by genetic mutations, the frequency of which infers whether it is a dominant or recessive gene, among other things).

I think ‘hands on’ laboratory work is a crucial part of learning and understanding science. But these practical classes cost a lot of money, far higher ‘per student’ costs than simply paying a professor to talk for 1 hour. Unfortunately, while the university continues to be under serious financial pressure, ‘per student’ costs must be rationalised.

There is no doubt that, despite budget cuts, UC Berkeley continues to be a fantastic research university. It continues to hire and fund some of the brightest academic stars, including having eight Nobel Laureates on the books. But if the quality of undergraduate education was suffering, how long would it take for anybody to realise?

One indicator may be the length of time it takes for American graduate students to complete a PhD. My anecdotal experience with Australian PhD candidates is that it takes about four years to complete. If you are still there after seven or eight years, it is time for a change of career.

Yet at UC Berkeley, seven or eight years seems to be the standard. Anything under ten is fine, four years is practically unheard of. Could it be that the first few years of the PhD is spent catching up on the education that should have been provided at the undergraduate level?

I am not sure, but while university rankings continue to emphasise research outputs over the quality of teaching, this outcome seems inevitable.

8 thoughts on “How should we rank universities?”

  1. Maybe financial rather than educational pressure explains the difference in PhD durations. A key reason most Australian PhD students try and get it done in 4 years is that a Commonwealth scholarship only lasts 3.5 years. After that you’re on your own. Maybe in the States it’s possible to get a scholarship extended, or more likely, you have to be self funded from the start.


    1. I agree, that is definitely a factor. But there is a huge opportunity cost for staying the extra 4-5 years, even if funding is available. They are forgoing a higher income and higher level (post-doc or professorial) experience. I reckon they would finish earlier if they could.


  2. I don’t doubt that undergraduate education is undervalued in assessing universities.

    Here’s the criteria for the Academic Ranking of World Universities

    Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 10%
    Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 20%
    Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories 20%
    Papers published in Nature and Science 20%
    Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index 20%
    Per capita academic performance of an institution 10%
    Total 100%

    Why don’t they measure teaching? Only because you can’t. It’s much like our obsession with GDP, or possessions on the football field. If you can’t measure it, you can’t (and don’t bother to) manage it.


  3. There may be an assumption that there is a strong correlation between research strength (as measured by citations and Nobel laureates) = quality teaching as the academic staff are thus leaders in their field. There may also be a belief that research strength = ranking = prestige = attracts top students.


  4. PhD programs in the US have a course-work component that Australian PhD programs do not. Partly that is a structure thing, but US PhD candidates generally come out of those years with a greater breadth of research knowledge, a stronger research background and generally a more focused (shorter) research question than their Australian counterparts. Most of what is learnt in those two years, Australians learn too, but by themselves. There is a lot to be said for course-work in a PhD program, I think.


    1. I wanted this to be a comment about under-grad education rather than the merits of various PhD programs, that was just my example. But, I must disagree with some of your comment. (1) Australian PhD candidates do coursework during their ‘honours’ year (2) you shouldn’t compare the totality of learning in an 8 year PhD to a 4 year PhD, rather to a four year PhD and plus four years of post-docs (or some other more advanced position). In that comparison, I think it is obvious which is the superior option.


  5. FC, 1) in which case you should count the ‘honours’ year and quite often, the ‘masters’ years as part of the time it takes to acquire an Australian PhD. 2) I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the quality of an under-graduate course from PhD completion times. There are too many other structural factors. US courses, at both levels are more generalist – US undergrads take more subjects outside their major, US PhD course-work covers more territory than the Australian equivalent. That takes longer, whether it makes them better, who knows? Once you head down that path you are really entering a philosophical debate on the value of generalist education and the role of universities. 3) The better the student, the more learning they do on their own, and the less input the university can have. The real question is how well educated is the median student?


  6. Agreeing with the criteria-based comment, I would rather rank “research institutes” and “education/teaching institutes” separately, on different criteria because they do not perform the same function even though there is often overlap. And yes, there are ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching, but they have to be implemented by the institutions themselves: employment rate and average income x years after graduation, overall satisfaction with life, whatever pertinent indicator, and obviously these indicators will also be affected by the prestige of the school. This is done questionnaire-based already in a number of schools in France for example, but not universities, they are too poor to afford it. Then the aggregation and harmonising of these data is a tricky point, but that’s the fun of meta-analysis approaches, no?


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