With U-Multirank’s second world university rankings out on March 30, the European University Association, or EUA, has been asking European universities what they thought of the first effort. Opinion was, shall we say, divided!

But more on that later!

First a look at why the English higher education establishment seem so bothered about it.

What is it?

U-Multirank, or UMR, claims to be breaking the university rankings mould with its user-driven, multi-dimensional approach that offers ‘like-with-like’ comparisons of different kinds of institutions across a range of activities. It then grades these ‘A’ for ‘very good’ to ‘E’ for ‘weak’ rather than producing a global top 100 universities based on composite scores.

But the new rankings, supported by the European Commission with €2 million of seed funding, has yet to win over most British and North American universities.

Expect a backlash if UK and US institutions don’t perform very well when it publishes its second rankings on March 30.

Why so suspicious?

Is it just Euroscepticism and fear that Anglophone institutions might risk losing their crown to pesky foreigners if the rules are changed from traditional world university rankings? Or are there genuine grounds for concern about the new rankings?

Worries first surfaced when Brussels announced its support for the new U-Multirank consortium, led by the Dutch-based Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and the German Centre for Higher Education, three years ago.

The British House of Lords’ European Union Committee immediately questioned whether the whole exercise might be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Times Higher Education (THE) ranker-in-chief and, UMR rival, Phil Baty, recalled that about the only good word said in U-Multirank’s favour was that it ‘might be useful if it genuinely provided a transparent source of information for students wanting to study abroad’.

The Lords couldn’t see any value if it simply resulted in an additional European rankings system alongside the existing international ranking systems.

'Scathing' - David Willetts

‘Scathing’ – David Willetts

David Willetts, universities and science minister at the time, was even more scathing, saying it could be viewed as ‘an attempt by the EC Commission to fix a set of rankings in which (European universities) do better than they appear to do in the conventional rankings.’

Were their worst fears realised?

Last month the British Eurosceptics appeared to have their worst fears confirmed when UMR released its first ranking of world universities based on international orientation.

U-Multirank’s multi-dimensional range of indicators encourages users to create their own top-scoring premier league for different elements of university activity rather than an overall league table. But it was clear who the winners were – and only one was from the UK and none were from the United States or Australia.

The French came top, with six of the best institutions for internationalisation.

Paris HECEcole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris, or HEC Paris, was the strongest performer scoring in the top ten of three of the four assessed indicators.

For international orientation, the U-Multirank indicators included (inward and outward) student mobility, percentage of international academic staff, international joint publications and international doctoral degrees.

In all, 27 institutions got four A-grades for internationalisation. All were based in countries within the European Union or European Economic Area (EEA).

Interestingly, no German university was in the top class. The UK’s single representative was the University of Liverpool.

Whatever next?

Well, the second full U-Multirank rankings covering five dimensions of university performance – teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement – will be published at the end of this month.

This time it will include 1,200 higher education institutions, up from nearly 900 involved in the first U-Multirank. Nearly 700 institutions are ‘fully participating’ by supplying their own data. This is 200 more than last time!

Frank Ziegele

Frank Ziegele

UMR’s joint project leader Frank Ziegele, director of the Centre for Higher Education in Germany, claims this means U-Multirank ‘will offer the highest number of institutions included in any global ranking worldwide.’

That might be so, but I’m sure critics will be waiting with bated breath to get stuck in if most of the Anglophone universities involved are regulated to the second division or worse.

So what does the rest of Europe think of U-Multirank?

The European University Association (EUA) asked its 850 members in 47 countries this very question last autumn and has just produced a report.

Views pretty mixed!

EUA_UMR_reportJust like other rankings, respondents felt U-Multirank was struggling with comparability and reliability of data.

Major concerns were also raised regarding the consistent interpretation of the UMR indicators across different institutions, and countries, and thus the validity of the data provided.

Among the EUA-university members fully participating in the first round of UMR, many were surprised at the amount of work involved. But all who actively contributed to the data collection in the first round plan to do so in the future.

The first round of U-Multirank covered 879 institutions from over 70 countries, but representation was weak from the UK and United States. Only nine British institutions participated in data collection last year. A total of 13 are actively participating this year, with a further 36 British universities probably being included using publicly available data.

Worryingly, UMR uses some indicators for which many of the universities do not seem to have data available, such as employability of graduates.

Among EUA members not currently taking part in U-Multirank about half said they wanted to wait and see how it develops – and nearly a quarter said they hadn’t heard of the Brussels-inspired initiative.

Focus on specialist institutions

From my point of view, as an avid European higher education watcher, I think U-Multirank has the potential to be a vey useful for students and other stakeholders.

That it causes some surprises might prove its worth, as the traditional league tables focus on the large comprehensive research-intensives and largely ignore the smaller specialist institutions.

When I compared U-Multirank with the THE’s World University Rankings for my own website blog – it was clear the two are not just looking at different things, but they are looking at different institutions.

And, as one advocating cross-border student and staff mobility to help breakdown anti-European sentiments, I welcome U-Multirank’s use of outward and inward student mobility data instead of just counting international students recruited.

As for complaints that it is too time-consuming to provide data, I’ve been at the receiving end of requests for information from rankers in a past life. Yes, some information requests can be very demanding. But if they encourage better internal data management they can help increase transparency without causing too much pain and strain.

You don’t have to supply everything demanded to participate in rankings like U-Multirank, as they also use publicly available data. But if you want to stand a chance of being in their premier league it makes sense to supply self-reported details to support your profile. Take care, though, as these are usually verified to ensure accuracy.

Find out more:

France dominates new rankings for internationalisation: University World News 13 February, 2015

Universities divided on value of new rankings, University World News, 25 February 2015

A tale of two international university rankings, De la Cour Communications blog, 18 February, 2015