Why It Matters

Gaining universities' true worth

The annual university ranking season has begun, with London-based education consultancy Quacquarelli Symonds being the first to release its list of 350 top Asian universities earlier this week.

Singapore institutes fared well, with the National University of Singapore in pole and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in third position.

Next week, the Times Higher Education magazine will release its list and, over the next few months, more will follow. And increasingly, students and parents are using the tables to select universities, as are academics when deciding on positions, and some governments in making funding decisions.Younger universities have said rankings give them visibility.

As NTU officials have said, before rankings, the quality of education provided by universities was assumed. And those like NTU, despite making big improvements, went unnoticed. But they are also well aware of the limitations of rankings.

Academics have complained that the rankings are based on "bad social science" in using a mix of subjective and objective data. By choosing a particular set of indicators, such as how other academics rate a university, rankers decide what matters in higher education. Some aspects, such as teaching quality, are assessed using proxy measures such as the ratio of academic staff to students.

With rising tuition costs, and graduates in many economies facing job woes, is it time to have a more useful measure of the worth of universities and the education they provide?

Perhaps students will be better served by the rankings being developed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The think-tank has not revealed the details but, based on a trial test a few years ago, it is likely to assess students' critical thinking skills, plus competencies in specific disciplines. The test is a chance to compare results across universities and have more transparency.If done well and on the basis of objective data, the OECD test may become a game changer in measuring the true worth of a university.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Measuring true worth of unis'. Print Edition | Subscribe