German universities to take university rankings serious

Germany is the best place I know to be a professor if you value your independence. Your rights have been codified in the German Basic Law (Constitution) and no dean can tell you what to do. You are your own person.

On the downside, German professors and universities have been (for the most part) blissfully ignorant of how the rest of the world evaluates universities. Common sentiments in computer science are that “Journal publications are for wimps, real researchers publish in the leading conferences” and “University evaluations? Those are all fraudulent, focusing on crappy criteria that have no connection with reality”.

Some of these critiques are proper. For example, almost all German universities are public universites and many have a unique and positive symbiosis with industry, fueling Germany’s economic growth—where is that being accounted for in these rankings? But for the most part, Germany’s hesitance to join the international ranking game has been harmful.

In one experiment, two German universities recently decided to report their numbers to the Times Higher Education (T.H.E.) ranking with the goal of optimizing their rank. That is nothing uncommon, Northeastern University, for example, has undertaken a multi-year effort to game the US News and World report ranking, much to their benefit, apparently.

Over night (from one ranking year to the next), University of Tübingen’s ranking jumped from the 201-225 range (ranking year 2013/14) to rank 113 (ranking year 2014/15) and the Technical University of Dresden’s ranking jumped from the 251-275 range to the 135 rank within the same time-frame—just by reporting the numbers differently. They did not have to change the way the operate or incentivize anyone; they just interpreted their numbers in a way that matched the ranking algorithms better.

This does not necessarily have to be a shady move. One of the main levers is how you account for scientific personnel. Most research efficiency metrics depend on it. German universities count Ph.D. students as scientific personnel (because most Ph.D. students are paid a full salary). Almost no non-German university I know counts Ph.D. students as scientific personnel, so taking them out is likely to significantly affect research efficiency metrics: same paper output with much less personnel.

The recalcitrance of German universities may be surprising to some. After all, and unlike that other different system, the Japanese, German professors are travel-happy, tend to speak English sufficiently well (albeit often with a funny accent) and seem to hang round international events like about everyone else. For all that I can say this has only been masking the differences.

The ease of climbing up the rankings in the examples give above, however, has woken up many German universities. After all, it is rather convenient not having to change much and still look better.

Numbers galore… it will be interesting to see how this will shake out.



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