What determines excellence?

The University of Helsinki placed 100th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014. The global race for rankings has also garnered criticism.

The University’s position is nine places better than last year, even though it received fewer points (52.6). The 100th position is shared with the University of York.

University’s Head of International Affairs Markus Laitinen is pleased with the results:

– We're moving in the right direction. A position among the top 100 universities in the world comes with some practical advantages and from an international perspective this position will improve our reputation.

The ranking continues to be dominated by universities from the English-speaking world. The California Institute of Technology was ranked best university for the third consecutive year. Harvard and Oxford shared the second position. The best university in a non-English-speaking country was the ETHZürich, at 14th place.

The University of Helsinki is now the second-best Nordic university in the ranking this year, behind Karolinska Institutet (36).

Does competition interfere with daily policy?

The strategies of most universities listed in the ranking include objectives relating to improved ranking. The University of Helsinki is no exception – it hopes to become one of the top 50 universities in the world.  Such goals are often criticised for being over-emphasised and for dominating university strategies.

– We do not draft our strategy or work to improve the University’s results in order to gain better positions in rankings. However, if we are successful in reaching our objectives, this is unlikely to be ignored in the ranking results, points out Dr.  Juhana  Aunesluoma, Director of the Network for European Studies at the University of Helsinki and member of the University Board.

Aunesluoma spoke at a panel discussion held on 25 September on the impact that global rankings have on the academic world and higher education policy in Europe.

European universities struggle to defend themselves

Assistant Professor at the Department for Political and Economic Studies Tero Erkkilä has edited the book Global University Rankings – Challenges for European Higher Education, which will be published on 11 October. He believes that universities should be more critical of the influence rankings:

– Rankings generate an image of competition between institutions and individuals and idealise certain types of institutional models. This is reflected in the official debate on higher education policy in both Finland and on the EU level, Erkkilä asserts.

University rankings have been criticised for placing too much emphasis on the number of publications and citations, focusing on specific publication types and trying to measure an institution’s reputation. In addition, Erkkilä believes that the rankings do not represent the diversity of higher education because they focus on the Anglo-American university model as the ideal.

– The rankings cannot by their very nature consider national differences in institutional policy or the resources available to different universities, Erkkilä states.

One of the problems facing European universities is that few rankings focus on research in the humanities and social sciences, and that publications in regional languages are not on equal footing in the English-language rankings.