21 September 2016
by Paul Ashwin

World university rankings 2016-2017: why it’s hard to make global comparisons in higher education

The assessment of global trends in university teaching and learning can be a tricky business owing to the fact that both, by their very nature, are local. Teaching and learning are always local because they involve particular students gaining access to particular bodies of knowledge and practices in particular settings: these can change according to who is involved, what is being learned and where the teaching and learning are taking place, making it difficult to consider them in global terms.

Nevertheless they are shaped by institutional, national and international policies and trends that seek to influence what is valued about a university education. Two of the strongest current trends are an increased focus on the quality of teaching and learning in higher education and increased pressures to compare their quality on a global basis.

The focus on the quality of teaching and learning is highlighted in the recent Yerevan Communiqué, a document that lays down the vision of the European Higher Education Area, in which European higher education ministers declared that ‘enhancing the quality and relevance of teaching and learning is the main mission of the EHEA’. This is a remarkable change given that teaching and learning did not even feature in the original discussions of the Bologna Process.

The communiqué argues that such a focus on quality is crucial because of the need for higher education to help develop inclusive and democratic societies. However, it also highlights the desire of policymakers to be able to meaningfully compare the quality of degrees in order to build trust and allow the free movement of students and labour.

The need for comparability within the Bologna Process led to the development of the Tuning project in 2000, which has since spread beyond Europe to Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, Russia and the US. The Tuning project highlights a central tension in global developments relating to teaching and learning in higher education, between the specialist ways of thinking that are offered by different disciplines and professional fields and the desire to compare their quality.

The project was given the title ‘Tuning’ to emphasise that it is not about uniformity but finding common reference points that do not undermine disciplinary and cultural diversity.

However, to make things comparable, it has involved a shift to identifying learning outcomes and competences that transcend these differences. This is partly motivated by the desire to show that students’ engagement with higher education will help them to develop the generic skills that will prepare them for employment.

The trouble is that while these skills can be described generically, they are not meaningfully generic: being a good engineering problem-solver does not necessarily mean that you will be good at solving problems in economics, just as being a good communicator in English does not mean that you are also a good communicator in Chinese.

Similar problems arise during attempts to measure the quality of learning and teaching globally. As with Tuning, these have tended to focus on the generic learning outcomes that students gain from engaging in higher education. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project used a series of generic skills tests to examine what students gained from higher education by asking students to respond to particular situations.

The problem in this case is that one of the key things that an undergraduate degree offers students is the ability to enter an undefined situation and recognise what is going on as, say, a chemist, an architect or a philosopher. The moment the situation is defined, as it is in these tests, then most of the meaningful work is done.

We are therefore faced with a tension between the legitimate need for higher education to show that it is offering an education that is of comparable quality globally and the fact that this quality is defined by the power of higher education to introduce students to particular elements of knowledge, which transform who they are and how they engage with the world.

Given the legitimacy of the call for students and societies to know the quality of education that is offered by universities, there is an urgent need to develop ways of measuring quality that do not ignore this defining feature of higher education.

Such measures will not be easily developed and, as the Tuning process recognised, will be developed only by collaborative conversations between academics, students and other higher education parties.

But if we don’t develop these ways of comparing quality, we will be left with measures of quality of teaching and learning in universities that tell us nothing about the ‘higher’ nature of higher education.

This blog was also published in Times Higher Education.