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Former minister calls for reform of research-based global university rankings

Global university rankings put an unfair emphasis on research and should include more teaching measures, David Willetts, the former UK minister for universities has said.

Universities that are very good at teaching but less prestigious for research are missing out on international students because of the rankings, he says.  New parallel tables for research and teaching might be one way to improve them, he suggests.

Willetts, who stepped down from Government last year, is now the chair of the Higher Education Advisory Board for TES Global, the parent company of the influential THE World University Rankings.

In an exclusive interview with Media FHE for the British Council ahead of its annual Going Global conference of more than 1,200 leaders of education being held in London this week, the former Minister who is now visiting professor at King’s College London also called for more emphasis on improving the quality of teaching in UK universities, and suggested the new Conservative government will make it a priority.

The increasingly global nature of higher education has meant more attention on world university rankings, he said.

“We know that prior attainment and research excellence are important in the rankings at the moment and the quality of the student experience or teaching do not feature highly.  That’s probably because we haven’t yet got good enough metrics.

“Getting teaching assessments that are internationally comparable will be a challenge over the next few years. As a minister I was very aware that when overseas ministers were thinking about where to spend their precious scholarship money on sending students abroad they chose universities that were high in the rankings and they were high in the rankings because of their research. 

“I used to tell them that in England we have universities which are not as prestigious in terms of research but that have very good teaching and their students would gain much from them. Perhaps we need parallel rankings on teaching and research,” he said.

Media FHE is officially covering Going Global. For news and interviews, visit our Going Global page.


David Willetts