Friday, June 1, 2012

Apples and Oranges: Ranking the world's best new universities

Quite predictably, the new Times Higher Education league table ranking the world's 100 best universities that are under 50 years old is getting widespread publicity.  Forbes and other mainstream business press outlets have covered it. The new ranking, which aims to identify the "rising stars" of the global academy is definitely of interest here in South Korea, since the number one school on the list is Pohang University of Science and Technology, or POSTECH.  KAIST, where I currently teach, managed to rank only fifth on the new list, even though most Koreans, including those knowledgeable about higher education, would chuckle at the very notion that POSTECH might outrank KAIST.
The comparison of KAIST with POSTECH is in some respects like comparing apples and oranges.  KAIST was founded under President Park Chung Hee and a committee of experts led by Stanford professor Frederick Terman wrote the original plan for its establishment, in 1971.  POSTECH is only 26 years old and was founded with substantial financial support from POSCO, a major Korean steel company located in Pohang. POSCO’s then-CEO, the late Tae-Joon Park, modeled it after the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, with an emphasis on science and engineering.
Although both KAIST and POSTECH drew upon the experience of elite California institutions in their formative years, the similarity in some ways ends there.  For example, in terms of size and scope of activity, KAIST is a huge, sprawling institution compared with POSTECH.  As noted in a Korea Joongang Daily article about the new rankings,Postech’s “selection and concentration” strategy was a crucial reason for its number one ranking. “Its resources are focused on a small number of research fields, and its intimate environment facilitates a highly personalized, hands-on, research-led experience for students,” said Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings, noting that the 26-year-old university has 270 faculty members and admits only 320 undergraduates every year.  Those of you who choose to look further into the quantitative basis of the rankings will find that POSTECH ranked extremely high in terms of the measures of academic citations that were used.
In conclusion, please don't interpret this post as "sour grapes" on my part since I'm currently on the faculty at KAIST.  Both of these Korean institutions richly deserve inclusion on the new rankings.  At the same time, the publicity surrounding this newest international ranking of schools should alert us to the pitfalls in any ranking system and the difficulty of comparing apples to oranges.

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