Know more about school, rather than rely on rankings

Senior education correspondent Sandra Davie's commentary last Thursday asked if it was time for a more objective measure of the worth of universities and the education they provide ("University rankings: Time for a regrading?").

In general, the university rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds used to (and sometimes still are) be biased towards certain types of universities. To my knowledge, the old methodology rewarded universities that are mostly slanted towards research.

So, the prospect of a new and more holistic ranking system by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) certainly seems more welcome and fair.

However, prospective students still face an imperfect situation when it comes to finding out the right information about a university.

While rankings tend to judge a university as a whole, the strengths of a university may lie in specific faculties or niches, such as its special programmes, which are not assessed.

For example, Cornell may be ranked below the National University of Singapore (NUS), but does its applied economics and management programme fare that much worse than the NUS business programme?

While the eventual OECD ranking may offer a more objective and holistic view, users may fall into the same traps as before.

The main problem may be that most people take university rankings as the be-all and end-all; and the OECD's methodology may not be of as much concern to people as the ranking numbers it displays.

The culture, style of education and the environment are the more important factors by which to judge a school. And no one knows this better than the alumni.

Perhaps what we need is a way to gain access to the knowledge that alumni of certain schools have.

Rankings could be used to shortlist a number of schools. But from then onwards, communication with people who know the school will be much more effective in determining if the student is a right fit for the school.

Prospective students should make the effort to know more about the school and what it can offer, rather than judge it based on rankings alone.

Wah De Kai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Know more about school, rather than rely on rankings'. Print Edition | Subscribe