The first set of university rankings has been released for this academic year. This is the ARWU (academic ranking of world universities) put out by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I’m going to focus on the rankings of “Engineering/Technology and Computer Sciences” category, since that’s most relevant to my interests, and they can be found at this link. Since prospective students and parents sometimes spend a lot of time and effort pondering on the meaning of these rankings, let’s go through them together.
In any ranking exercise, the first and most important thing to look at are the measurement and ranking criteria. Why care about some ranking that uses criteria you don’t care about? Before looking at too many rankings, it would be good for prospective students to think hard and make a list of criteria that are important to them. Your list might be quite different from someone else’s, since these can be dependent on your personal needs and wants and expectations.
So, on to the ARWU. I sort of like it, because it’s very quantitative and based on measurable items of productivity (called bibliometrics). The total score is composed of sub-scores for 1) the number of highly cited researchers (in research journals), 2) the number of research papers listed in the Science Citation Index (engineering fields), and 3) the fraction of research papers published in the top 20% journals in Engineering. So, we see that there is no type of “reputation” score used in any of this assessment, just bibliometrics. Unlike the other ranking I mentioned recently, which was only reputational and somewhat skewed towards computer and IT fields, I think.
Overall in Engineering, Waterloo ranks #43 in the world, right above University of Oxford. Within Canada, Waterloo ranks second, behind Toronto (#13), and above McGill (#51-75 group), Alberta (#76-100 group), UBC and Montreal (#101-150 group), and McMaster and Simon Fraser and Saskatchewan (#151-200 group) (only the top 50 are individually ranked, the rest are grouped by 50’s).
If you look at the sub-scores there is not a lot of difference between Waterloo and Toronto, and between many institutions in general. It would be interesting to look at how much of the differences are “noise”, i.e. random fluctuations in publication rates over time. I’ll leave that for someone else to do; I’ve got my own research publications to work on!
For prospective undergraduate engineering students, what value does this ranking provide? Well, it doesn’t address any issues about career success, or quality of teaching, or teaching facilities, or student support and scholarships. So there is a lot that it doesn’t tell you. However, it is arguably a reasonable measure of research activity. Some prospective students might be interested in part-time research with a professor, or perhaps a co-op job in a professor’s research lab. So perhaps this ranking indicates which universities might have more or better opportunities? I don’t know, that’s probably a bit of a stretch since I know good opportunities exist at Canadian universities that don’t even show up in the ARWU, like Queen’s University.
So there it is. Take it for what it’s worth to you, or if you don’t care about research publications in journals, just ignore it. There will be a bunch more rankings coming out in the next few months, so we’ll look at each of those too.