EUOBSERVER - The European Union is developing a new worldwide ranking system of universities to rival currently established league tables in a bid to improve the ranking of European universities and improve Europe's economic power.
National league tables have been common since the 1990s but as higher education has increasingly become globalised with many students opting to take part of their studies abroad, the focus has shifted to worldwide university rankings.
This means the rankings are increasingly receiving more attention for different specific purposes: Students use them to short-list their choice of university; public and private institutions use them to decide on funding allocations; universities use them to promote themselves; while some politicians use them as a measure of national economic achievements or aspirations.
Europe's around 4,000 higher education institutions have over 19 million students and 1.5 million staff. However, European universities have time and again failed to make it big in the current world university rankings.
The upcoming European league table
The European ranking project will be developed over a two-year period with planned implementation at the beginning of 2011.
Earlier this year, a German/Dutch/Belgian/French consortium for Higher Education and Research Performance Assessment - called CHERPA - won an EU call for tender to develop and test an alternative design for a global ranking of universities.
While planning has been taking place throughout the second half of 2009, the European league table will be tested on 150 higher education institutions around the world in the first half of 2010, initially focussing on engineering and business studies. The project has a budget of €1.1 million.
Although the number of ranking tables increase every year, there are at the moment two main - and rivalling - world university rankings: the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) in the UK and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities (SJTU) in China.
Both rankings have been compiled annually since the mid-2000s and generally show US universities to be well ahead of continental European universities when it comes to the top spots.
In the past six Jiao Tong rankings, 17 US universities were each year placed in the top 20, with Cambridge and Oxford Universities the only European higher education institutions among the top 20. Over the same period, the THES league table generally has 12 US institutions in the top 20 together with four UK universities and occasionally a French institution.
Europe criticises global rankings
The European Commission as well as some EU member states have been criticising the way the established rankings have been compiled, saying that they "contain many biases" and that they fail to "represent the diverse and multifunctional nature of universities and their research activities accurately."
"The commission is of the opinion that many existing rankings do not really fulfil this purpose, for example because they focus on research aspects rather than teaching, and on entire institutions rather than programmes and departments," the Commission stated when calling for a European alternative to the current global league tables.
The call came after a 2008 Commission study questioned the substance of statistics on which the Jiao Tong ranking is based and concluded that neither the Jiao Tong nor the THES system succeed in effectively ranking Europe's universities.
France has long called for a European alternative to current global league tables, arguing that the selection criteria of existing rankings favour Anglo-Saxon higher education institutions to the disadvantage of French and other European universities. French Minister for Higher Education and Research Valérie Pécresse has made a new European rankings system one of her priorities.
According to the EU Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, Maros Sefcovic, the European ranking project's so-called "multi-dimensional" approach to the mapping of universities would create "a better balance between research indicators and quality of education indicators when it comes to the ranking of universities."
The battle for brainpower
The aim to draw up an EU university ranking system forms part of a broader modernisation agenda, which seeks to improve higher education across Europe as part of an overall economic growth strategy.
In the global market, universities have become "a barometer of global competition measuring the knowledge-producing and talent-catching capacity of higher education institutions," argues Ellen Hazelkorn from the Dublin Institute of Technology.
"Knowledge has become the foundation of economic, social and political power," where "the ‘scramble for students' … or ‘battle for brainpower' now complements traditional geo-political struggles for natural resources," she adds.
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