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As higher education becomes increasingly global and elite institutions in the UK and the US face competition from new markets, being able to assess the quality of a university is becoming ever more critical. Yet while a range of measurement tools and rankings exist, the industry is still struggling to come up with indicators that are more than proxies for quality.

When it comes to elite institutions, the league tables demonstrate that the status quo prevails, with the top US and UK universities continuing to dominate the upper echelons of the rankings.

The top of the elite are “holding up pretty well”, says Ben Sowter, head of the QS Intelligence Unit, which produces the QS World University Rankings. “Their best faculty want to stay there and the best faculty from the next tier of institutions want to get there.”

He argues that the Mooc (massive open online course) movement has, by giving more people exposure to the quality of their expertise, done a lot to enhance the prestige of leading institutions such as Stanford, which launched its first Mooc in 2011.

While the gap in the league tables between US and UK universities and their counterparts in other markets is closing, the balance is unlikely to shift dramatically, at least in the near term.

“Universities in the UK and US are in possession of something extremely valuable – the English language,” says Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education at the University of London. Nevertheless, US and UK institutions will not be able to count on retaining their linguistic monopoly for much longer. Indian institutions already teach courses in English, as do many European universities, especially in Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Emerging markets are starting to offer increasingly high-quality educational experiences. And some Asian universities, especially in China, are enhancing their teaching by establishing partnerships with leading western institutions.

“At the moment they are focused on quantity and putting up more places, but there is a lot of effort going into improving the quality of the learning experience,” says Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD and special adviser on education policy to the organisation’s secretary-general.

Sowter also sees growing competition coming from Latin American and African institutions. “There is certainly a focus on competitiveness in higher education from both those regions and my instincts tell me we will start seeing some interesting trends emerge in the next 10 years or so,” he says.

Emerging market universities often offer better value for money than western institutions. For students in those markets, this means that rather than going overseas to get a high-quality education, as they might have done in the past, they now have the option of staying at home to study. The search for value for money may also alter the choice of some students in the UK, where universities charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees. Meanwhile, in the US, students considering Ivy League schools and other elite institutions may balk at the prospect of graduating with up to $200,000 in debt.

As the higher education landscape becomes more competitive, the question is how to assess the quality of a particular institution and compare it with others. In this process, league tables such as the QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) have played a key role. Many argue, however, that these league tables, which use indicators such as the ratio of teachers to students, research funding levels or the achievements of faculty, are poor measures of quality.

“They have been giving us a very partial measure of what institutions are doing,” says Prof Husbands.

The ARWU, for example, uses indicators that include citations in journals and the number of alumni and staff who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields medals.

An alternative indicator is the success that students graduating from different institutions have in securing jobs. However, as Schleicher points out, this is highly dependent on the nature of labour markets.

In the US, he says, the market is highly skill-sensitive. “Whereas in Sweden, there is a lot of wage compression, so even if you are highly skilled, you are not going to earn a lot more than someone who is less skilled. So these labour market outcomes don’t work that well internationally.” Sowter also acknowledges the difficulties. “There are layer upon layer of complications with trying to quantitatively evaluate teaching across countries,” he says. “And that is before you even get into the varieties of pedagogy, different innovations and the way technology is used in different contexts.”

Efforts are being made to find alternative measures. The OECD, for example, has conducted a feasibility study, the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, on whether it is possible to assess what students have learned from their higher education courses and what their capabilities are on graduation.

The study looked at generic skills such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and written communication as well as specific technical skills. Schleicher says, however, that institutional resistance has hampered this effort. “We have not been able to do this at university level because the institutions are very strong,” he says. “They refuse to participate.”

Meanwhile, QS is working with Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania on an initiative called Reimagine Education, a global awards programme that will recognise innovations in higher education teaching that enhance learning and improve employability.

“We know the rankings don’t really get to teaching,” says Sowter. “And we are not convinced they ever will, so this is what we are doing to demonstrate that we believe teaching is vitally important to the understanding of university quality.”

Ultimately, however, students may find their own ways of assessing quality by applying the approach they might take when shopping online for shoes or mobile phones to selecting a university course.

For the next generation, this may change the way people make choices about higher education. Sowter cites recent research by Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, that shows the average six-year-old is as tech-savvy as the average 45-year-old, with the most tech-savvy individuals being those aged 14-15. “That is university selection age,” he says. “They are going to be pulling in data and information at a rate their parents cannot keep up with, so the parental influence on these decisions is probably going to diminish.”

This, of course, may also mean that those behind the traditional methods of assessing university quality will have to think again.

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