Tuesday, February 21, 2006

User friendly information on colleges and universities

Doug Lederman writes in Inside Higher Ed about a study that compared the ranking of universities in several countries. This passage about the method adopted in Germany caught my attention:

Because of the problems they perceive with the subjectivity of the rankings, the authors suggest that there may be a better way for consumers and others to measure institutional quality — and they find it in Germany. There, a think tank called the Centre for Higher Education Development, working with a publisher, Die Zeit, publish a ranking (German language only) of individual academic departments based on extensive surveys of students and professors and data gathered independently of the departments themselves (the latter a crucial factor, says Usher, because it “takes the massaging of the data” that some colleges engage in out of the process).

The German ranking does not weight or aggregate the scores on individual indicators into a common “grade,” nor does it in any way assign the institutions in a numerical order. It classifies the departments into thirds (top, bottom, middle) on each individual indicator, and it allows individual users to sort the weightings and rankings in its database to compare institutions and departments in the way they choose.

Sometime ago, I talked about a speech given by the Chairman of AICTE in which he said colleges will hereafter be required to disclose information about their infrastructure and other details. I also noted there that students and their parents would benefit if the colleges disclose a lot of other details as well. Instead of depending on the colleges to do the right thing, the German model seems to mandate that this information be provided to some organization which is vested with the responsibility of putting it together in a user-friendly way.

I also remember this post by Rashmi Bansal, who talks about the relative merits of 'ranking' of universities and 'rating' them. She describes how JAM, the Mumbai-based youth magazine she edits, rates colleges in Mumbai. The German model also prefers rating of universities, leaving fine-scale decisions (about which attribute should get greater weightage, for example) to students.

When it comes to colleges and universities, just what kind of accountability measures should a society insist on? What kinds of information should it demand from them? In this article, the Chairman of "The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education" [that was quite a mouthful, wasn't it?] provides a framework for thinking about these question.