Just as Great Britain is heading for the Brexit door from the European Union, a breakthrough of sorts has resolved one of the weaknesses of the European Commission backed U-Multirank world university comparative rankings.

For the number of UK higher education institutions listed in the recently published 2017 U-Multirank has rocketed from 48 last year to 151.

A year ago I lamented in a blog that U-Multirank, or UMR, was ‘largely ignored by the British media and higher education establishment despite its claim to be the largest global university ranking’ and that only 13 UK universities were actively participating by pro-actively sharing their data with the UMR compilers. Bibliometric and patent data available allowed the UMR team to list a further 35 British institutions in some of the rankings, mainly those covering research, but the UK coverage was very patchy.

With little sign of a change in the way the data was collected and published – and with no British institution topping any of the benchmarking listings – there was not a lot of hope of any compromise last year. Most UK universities and the U-Multirankers seemed content to go their own separate sweet ways and were miles, or kilometres if you prefer, apart!

More US universities listed, too!

The situation in the US was almost as bad with only 168 American universities listed in 2016.

Frans van Vught of U-Multirank

But there was a clue to how U-Multirank intended to resolve matters when one of the two UMR project leaders, Frans van Vught told me last year they intended to pre-fill the US institutions’ questionnaires with data from IPEDS, the federal US data system in 2017.

So, the increase in US universities in U-Multirank to 244 this year was less of a surprise.

But I didn’t realise until the new U-Multirank 2017 edition was released that they had also done the same for British universities using HESA statistical data and significantly increased their coverage of UK higher education.

Fellow U-Multirank joint leader Frank Ziegele admitted to me the other day there were still plenty of gaps in the data for UK institutions, but it does mean that up to 24 of the 31 of the indicators used by UMR for many UK institutions can be covered with the help of HESA statistics and other publicly available data.

Ziegele would, of course, prefer British universities to follow the example of the Spanish and some other European countries and supply comprehensive data to fill the information holes. He says more UK universities have already been in touch to say they will cooperate next year.

Top UK performers

Newcastle University was the top British university in U-Multirank 2017 in terms of achieving ‘A’ scores at the institutional level. It gained 16, including three A scores out of a possible four for Teaching & Learning; seven As out a possible ten for Research and three out of a possible six for International Orientation.

King’s College London and University College London achieved 12 ‘A’ scores overall, with UCL being a top 25 performer for Research Publications.

Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge gained 11 ‘A’ scores and were both also top 25 performers for Research Publications.

Uncovering hidden gems

Meanwhile, U-Multirank retains some fascination for ranking-watchers like me, particularly for the ‘hidden gems’ it uncovers such as the top spots for the University of Liechtenstein and the National University of Mongolia in the ranking of universities for international joint publications with at least one author in another country. Makes sense when you think about it!

IÉSEG, top for mobility

And I was interested to note the strength of French business schools led by IÉSEG School of Management in the internationalisation of their programmes and global student mobility.

Some of the smaller and specialised institutions also scored highly in areas like citation rate, including the Institute of Cancer Research and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK.

From next year, the European Commission intends to press ahead with plans to reduce their financial support for U-Multirank to half the annual costs, with an annual ceiling of €600,000 from the Erasmus+ programme.

Becoming semi-independent from EU

Joint UMR project leader Frank Ziegele

Ziegele told me: “The European Commission planned from the beginning of the project to reduce their seed funding (after four years) to make the system independent. This will now happen this year. The whole change in funding and governance is not really closing a gap but a planned process on the way to independence.”

The Commission has called for proposals to take U-Multirank forward and Frank and Frans and the current U-Multirank team are hoping to win the tender and say they have the backing of philanthropic foundations to make up the gap after the Commission reduces its financial commitment.

Going semi-independent from the European Union may help U-Multirank convince more global universities that it is not a PR exercise from the European Commission to make European universities look better than they really are.

For more about U-Multirank 2017, see my blog for the European Universities’ PR and communication network, EUPRIO: U-Multirank reveals ‘hidden gems’ in the world’s universities April 17, 2017 and my report for The PIE News, April 11: U-Multirank seeks new backers as EU may cut funding.