The value of university rankings

There’s been lots of excitement lately about the recent Times Higher Education ranking of global universities, in which TU Delft ranks #51 in the world in terms of reputation, #104 in the world overall, and #22 among engineering and technology universities.

I was definitely excited to read these numbers – there’s something tantalizingly seductive about being told where you stand, regardless of what is measured. But what exactly is measured?

The Times Higher Education ranking examines the reputation of universities, measured by sending surveys to ‘experienced, senior academics’ around the world and asking ‘action-based’ questions, such as ‘which university would you send your most talented graduates to for the best postgraduate supervision?’ Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects populate the top of each list: Harvard, Oxford, MIT. You get the idea. The problem with these sorts of rankings is that people – even people who are ‘experienced, senior academics’ – aren’t always very clever. People like things that other people like, and want things that are hard to get. Admission to the three universities I listed above fit these ideas perfectly. Who wouldn’t name Harvard early on when asked to name one of the world’s top universities? Sure, I’ve never been to Harvard, I never cited any papers from Harvard while I was a student, and I can’t really tell you why Harvard is great, except that I know that it is. Everyone knows that, right?

These rankings are even less helpful when students want to know where to learn, rather than get an impressive name on their CVs. Not all TU Delft faculties are equally strong, and despite its great rankings, the TU isn’t a good place to learn medicine. But I’d be hesitant to let an engineer from Harvard build my bridge – wait, no I wouldn’t, they’re from Harvard! (Never mind that Harvard doesn’t have an engineering faculty… it’s Harvard!) Not only do these rankings omit a faculty’s relative strengths – which is much more important than overall university strength – they also miss many other aspects. Leiden University is ranked #79 overall, many spots higher than TU Delft, and has better scores than TU Delft regarding citations from its papers. But TU Delft has a much higher score on international outlook and links to industry. Should a student choose Leiden because of its rank? Of course not.

What’s more, these rankings say absolutely nothing about value. Almost all ‘top’ universities are in the US and UK, where university is expensive. Harvard’s annual undergraduate tuition is $40,000, and graduate programs cost even more. The question is, then: how much is a fancy name worth? How many students are happy 20 years later? How many get good jobs? In the US, 14 law schools are currently being sued for implying that ‘90 to 92 percent’ of graduates become lawyers, when really this stat is for those who are simply employed, even if only at McDonalds. Meanwhile, students studying for seven years to become lawyers at Harvard will pay up to $315,000 for their education. I’d be mad too if I wound up working at McDonalds.

I know I attended a great university, because it offered a unique program with passionate students, because I had professors who do amazing research, and because my colleagues go out into the world and start cool businesses and write remarkable PhD theses. I don’t need a magazine or number to tell me TU Delft is great. I already knew that.

Devin Malone, a recent MSc graduate in industrial ecology, is from Anchorage, Alaska.

I recently wrote an article for this newspaper about the Delft International Student Society (Diss) and their ambitious goals for representing the interests of international students, while also facilitating cultural events to bring together Dutch and non-Dutch alike. First, it’s is important to recognize the dual mission of the organization: one is a social mission, organizing events that help students experience different cultures, like the recent Indian Holi event; and the other is administrative, improving the lives of students regarding issues like housing and tuition. But no matter how ambitious, resourceful, and organized Diss is, they’re seriously hamstrung by two important facts: international students are only here for two years, and international students have no full-time representation at the university.

Many Dutch student organizations – like the Student Council or student associations – have full-time boards in which students operate as full-time employees. This means that there’s an entire team of students working every day, with compensation, on the types of projects that Diss members are trying to accomplish on a volunteer basis in their spare time, in addition to their course work and trying to maintain social lives. And let’s be honest, at 12,500 euros a year for tuition, the first priority of an international student is probably their studies. Jonathan Mugerwa, Diss’s chairman, confirmed as much in our recent interview, stating that there’s no international representation on TU Delft’s Student Council because international students prioritize their studies and aren’t particularly excited about spending an extra year in the Netherlands just to be on the Council.

Additionally, Dutch students might be part of the TU Delft community for six years, as opposed to the typical two year involvement of international students. This means that students can get involved in projects and issues over the long-term, which is important because lots of issues aren’t solved in a year or two. For this reason, organisations like Diss are better focused on the social part of their mission, bringing Dutch and international students together to learn about each other’s culture.

For the administrative issues – tuition, housing, insurance, grading, etc. – there should be a permanent ombudsman within the university’s International Office. An ombudsman is a paid, full-time employee that acts as a mediator between the students and the university. Crucially, an ombudsman would first and foremost represent the interests of international students. This would mitigate the two major problems any organization like Diss has: the ombudsman works full-time, is paid, and is here to stay, thus allowing the ombudsman to cultivate relationships within the administration and use those relationships to better affect change on international student issues. Organisations like Diss can still work to give a voice to students and help them get involved, but their work could be much more powerful if they had a permanent advocate within the university administration. TU Delft says that they’re serious about focusing on international students. If this is so, they should seriously considering changing the way that international student voices can be heard by creating an ombudsman.

Devin Malone, a second-year MSc student of industrial ecology, is from Anchorage, Alaska.

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