University rankings

Since a couple of years I started working on the world of Universities, both in Italy and abroad, and I noticed the great deal of noise created by the very concept of ranking Universities.

It is the same sort of noise that explodes at every hint of measuring in whichever way the effectiveness of the educational system; most countries exhibit this, with some (like the U.S.) being more used to such exercise and therefore howling less loudly.

As an engineer, I am fond of saying that anything that can’t be measured does not exist, which is an obvious exaggeration as there’s plenty of things that escape the ruler: happiness, beauty, friendship, love, religion just to name a few.

So let’s rephrase the statement to make it more accurate:

“Anything that can’t be measured is irrational”

This statement (not to be taken in its mathematical meaning) definitely reflects my own personal view, also in the meaning that when something is of a rational nature, there should be a way of measuring it (it’s just a matter of finding it).

So, back to Higher Education: I don’t think HE falls into the irrational category, so there must be a way to measure it. The real question is WHAT should we measure.

There are as many attempts to compile rankings as there are researchers, and the prestigious italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, not to be outdone, gave it a stab with this ranking:

2015 07 23 best italian uni

What’s interesting about it is the fact that, instead of picking a set of criteria, they allow the reader to move the “weight” of different criteria (on the left hand side), essentially allowing (almost) everyone to be the winner of a ranking based on some twisted set of criteria.

What I definitely am missing, and it’s surprising since the publication is the voice of the Italian industrial establishment, is the criterion that I, as a freshman, would consider most important after my own inclinations and preferences, which are probably in the irrational bucket.

This criterion says:

“How likely is that within six months of graduating I will have a job, and how much will this job pay?”

Ancillary questions may be whether the job is within the domain of the University courses taken, what was the role of the University in securing job interviews, etc. These data exist and they are relatively easy to combine and would create a ranking that is very relevant to young recruits. Instead they have chosen a set of 12 criteria, mostly inward-looking and mostly completely irrational. A great example is the “Effectiveness” criterion which measures NOT how effective a University is in transferring knowledge to its pupils, but how many credits on average pupils receive in a year. WTF?!?

Such a ranking would also have the advantage of being far less debatable, as it’s based on hard facts and not on interpretation.

Come to think, that’s perhaps the very reason they didn’t use it.


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