Assessing Global Higher Education

by John O’Leary, a member of the QS Academic Advisory board

How many different ways are there to assess global higher education? The QS subject rankings, the first of which will appear on April 5, represent one new way, giving students an international guide to quality in individual subjects for the first time.

The first five subjects, rated by academic and employer opinion as well as by citations, will cover computer science and four branches of engineering. Rankings in another 27 subjects will appear by the end of May.

The new rankings will be the first to give students an idea of employers’ views of the leading universities in individual subjects – something that is particularly important in disciplines such as engineering, where graduates tend to go into jobs directly related to their course. As a result, the big international employers often have a more sophisticated view of the qualities of graduates from different universities than those who recruit from the full range of subjects.

As the QS rankings of whole universities have shown, there can be subtle differences in the views of employers and academics on which are the leading universities. To have this knowledge at subject level will be an important addition to the information used by students in choosing universities across the world.

Whether they will be as enthusiastic about some of the other rankings that have come out recently is more doubtful. Times Higher Education, for example, having previously complained that the 40 per cent reputational element in the QS rankings was too high, published a ranking that was 100 per cent reputation and entirely derived from its last set of tables.

More innovative, but still of questionable value to students was the British Council’s Global Gauge, which purported to judge which countries were the most international in the higher education sphere. Perhaps surprisingly, Germany came out ahead of Australia in second place, the UK (third) and the USA (sixth). China and Malaysia were fourth and fifth respectively.  

The reason for this counter-intuitive order was that the ranking considered both incoming and outgoing international mobility. The Germans have always been active in international exchanges, particularly within the European Union, but their universities have become much more successful in recent years at attracting students from other parts of the world – often to learn in English.

The Council said its research, which was conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, showed that Germany was the most successful country at “getting the balance right between policies that open up international opportunities for students, academics and universities, and those that regulate their activities.” Points were awarded for “openness”, access and equity (measuring levels of support for students and academics studying or working abroad), and quality assurance and degree recognition, for policies in 11 countries regarded as important players in global higher education.

The UK was top for openness – a category that covered visa regulations (before the latest announcements) as well as university communications – but Germany swept the board in other categories, including for its low fees that are the same for domestic and international students. It gained particular credit for policies that encourage students and academics to spend time abroad. The German government would like half of all its students to spend at least one semester in another country.

Australia fell down on its financial support for international students, where it was behind China, as did the United States, which also suffered for not having a body to accredit offshore programmes.

Pat Killingley, the British Council’s Director of Higher Education, said: “The international higher education market is changing so rapidly that it can be difficult to get an accurate picture of how the activities of different countries are developing in relation to one another. This groundbreaking study compares for the first timehow rthe internationalisation of higher education is evolving in key countries.”

John O’Leary is a member of the QS Academic Advisory board

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