Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ranking of Excellent European Graduate Programmes in Natural Sciences

This report of the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE), which was released about a week ago, may be of interest to readers of this blog. The CHE is a think tank for higher education. Based on international comparisons, they develop models for the modernization of higher education systems and institutions.

Their report develops a Ranking of Excellent European Graduate Programmes in Natural Sciences (viz. biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics), which is intended as an orientation guide for undergraduates, helping them find their way around European Higher Education while at the same time helping them to choose a suitable university for their graduate studies: Master’s and PhD.

At first sight, the report looks very well done, and for an Italian expatriate like me it is good to see that Italian institutions are doing rather well. I'd like to see a similar analysis carried out for programmes in computer science.

Let me try and provide a few remarks on the CHE report. In passing, I'll also offer some personal conclusions related to what the findings of this report may mean for a country like Iceland, which has great ambitions despite its tiny population.

Let me start by focusing on one message from the report that I find most important here (quoted from page 14 of the report). While reading the following text, bear in mind that "subject areas" refers to biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, and not to a huge array of different disciplines.

"Another interesting finding is the fact that most institutions (33) are selected in only one subject area, 15 in two subject areas, 4 in three and also only 4 in all subject areas. If, even in the relatively closely connected academic fields of the natural sciences and mathematics, only 14% of the very top institutions in one geographic region are featuring three or all four subject areas, this can indeed be taken as an argument against institutionwide rankings."

Even though I enjoy reading the results of university-wide rankings, I believe that what should concern students choosing where to pursue their studies and funding agencies determining where to invest their research funds in specific disciplines is not the overall ranking of a university, but rather its excellence in the specific topic of interest. For this reason, I agree with the finding that subject-specific rankings are much more informative than institution-wide ones.

Of course, in general, a university that scores highly institution-wide won't have any very weak department. However, there may be, and indeed there are, universities that have peaks of true excellence in specific areas, even though they may not be world-beaters in many areas. If I were a prospective PhD student, I would prefer going to study in a department which is known to be top-class in the specific area of my interest rather than going to university X just because it has a globally good reputation. Quoting from the report:

"Prospective doctoral students are possibly less interested in the general performance of a faculty or department than in a specific research group. They usually have very clear ideas about the specialised topic on which they are focusing. Thus, it might be of some value for a student searching for a biology doctoral programme specialising in insects to know that the faculty at University A is excellent in its research output in this domain. However, it might be much more interesting for this individual to
learn that he could delve into honeybee studies in W├╝rzburg's bee group. Or, a student in astrophysics might be attracted less by the overall performance of the Physics Department at the University of Copenhagen than by its research group focusing on dark matter and cosmology."

So my first conclusion is:

Conclusion 1. Our business as academic institutions is reputation. It is better to be known in a few selected areas than to be unknown in many. Icelandic universities should prioritize and place more resources in those areas where they can maintain or build a strong reputation internationally. The competition is growing stronger by the day; nobody stands still and we will need many more resources in the future just to maintain our present standing where we have one.

The second point that I'd like to pick out from the report is the minimum entry requirement for even entering the evaluation. The 3000 ISI publications from a institution over the evaluation period are indeed a very tall order for any Icelandic institution at this moment in time. Sometimes we pat ourselves on the shoulders and tell each other how well we are doing, and for very good reasons. However, we should never lose sight of the "big picture". A very good practice for any scientist is to remain humble, to know that there is a lot one does not know, and to keep in mind that there are very many strong scientists and departments out there.

As Socrates famously put it, "A wise man is one who knows he does not know." In this setting, I would translate this statement into something like this:

Conclusion 2. A wise rector/dean/head of department is one who knows that her university/faculty/department will need to improve its research quality and output considerably just to maintain its present status, no matter what its present strength is. The only way to do so is to hire the best possible researchers, to give them the best possible working environment and the freedom to follow their research interests. Research output will need to be considered when distributing research money to ensure that the most funding goes where the highest "interests" (read "quality publications in internationally recognized outlets") will be generated.

Two of the indicators considered by the CHE Ranking are
  • the percentage of international and female staff within the group of staff with a doctorate and
  • the percentage of female and international doctoral and master's students.

I am afraid that, despite our snow queens, we score badly on both of these fronts. Ranking measurements aside, it is of paramount importance for science in Iceland to nurture female talent and to seek actively to hire the best available female applicants. Mind you, I am against hiring female applicants just because of their gender. What I am saying is that our departments should have search committees who actively nurture connections with the best possible female applicants for positions and that outstanding female applicants should be given precedence when they are at least as good as the competition. Here the ministry could also chip in with some financial incentives to universities to hire outstanding female applicants. (I won't turn this into a conclusion though )

One may wonder whether some research groups from Icelandic universities can make it into the big league. The answer to this natural question that emerges from the CHE report is, I believe, positive. Look at the bottom of page 12 in the report. There you will read:

"Looking at table 2, the United Kingdom not only attains the largest number of gold medals but also the largest number of medals in total within the excellence group. Switzerland, with only three universities in this group, is in third place concerning gold medals and holds the largest relative percentage of gold medals: 16 out of 22 medals in the whole."

This is an outstanding, and not unexpected, performance of Swiss institutions. In fact, ETH Zurich is one of only four universities with gold medals in all of the subjects in the excellence group (the others being Imperial College, the University of Cambridge and the University of Utrecht)! How can Switzerland achieve this outstanding level of academic achievement? Rather than trying to answer this question myself, I will rely on higher authority and freely quote a few excerpts from an interview to the Italian mathematician Alfio Quarteroni (professor at the Ecole Federale Polytechnique de Lausanne and at the Politecnico di Milano) published in this book.

  • Switzerland has only two federal universities (ETH and EFPL).
  • These are two truly international institutions. To wit, about 70% of their professors are foreigners, and so are about 65% of the PhD students and about 33% of their undergraduates.
  • Each of the few and carefully chosen full professors in those institutions has the financial resources to build her own research team. For instance, Quarteroni's team has about 20 members. (As a curiousity, they helped build Alinghi, the boat that has won the last two installments of the America's cup.)
  • Quarteroni roughly says: "EFPL offers outstanding environmental and quality conditions that I have not found elsewhere. I have worked at the University of Minnesota, at Paris VI and, for shorter periods, in about 50 universities and research centres throughout the world, including NASA at Langley; well, on the basis of my personal experience, Lausanne is the place where I have been able to realize my goals in the simplest, fastest and most efficient way."

Conclusion 3. I let you draw your own conclusions as to what we need to do here in Iceland in order to approach the lofty heights that those Swiss institutions as well as several universities in Finland, The Netherlands, and Sweden have managed to attain. The above opinions of Quarteroni's raise many questions which I hope Icelandic university administrators will be willing to answer.

1 comment: said...

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