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[DUBLIN] The current system of university rankings distorts higher education and research priorities, and undermines regionally relevant research, a conference has heard.

European and Commonwealth universities are now exploring alternative methods for assessing university performances, including offering students interactive web tools, which could help students choose universities according to their interests and priorities, rather than ranking alone.

Rankings help tracking shifts in the competitive strengths and weaknesses of nations through the performance of their universities, said Ellen Hazelkorn, head of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, Ireland.

However, they have also created situations in which certain types of knowledge are considered more important than others, Hazelkorn told the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) last week (13 July).

For example, the current ranking system favours physical, life and medical sciences, creates a "hierarchy of knowledge in which arts, humanities and social sciences are ignored", and benefits universities in English-speaking countries, Hazelkorn added.

Also, the emphasis on global impacts undermines the importance of regionally- or culturally-relevant outcomes of research, Hazelkorn added.

"New research fields, interdisciplinary research, or ideas which challenge orthodoxy, find it difficult to be published," she said.

Because of the importance attached to being 'world-class', many governments are busy restructuring or reshaping their systems, and concentrating their resources on a few elite universities.

But focusing on only a few institutions reduces a country's overall capacity for building a knowledge society, Hazelkorn told SciDev.Net.

John Wood, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), said that one drawback of the current ranking systems was that they do not reflect on the missions and objectives of various universities — for many, ranking may not be a priority.

The ACU is developing a simpler "benchmarking scheme" — a self-improvement tool that allows organisations to compare themselves with others, to identify their comparative strengths and weaknesses, and to learn how to improve.

Last year, the European Commission (EC) completed a feasibility study on a new, user-driven 'U-multirank' system that does not rank an institution as a whole, but does so according to specific disciplines in five dimensions: teaching; learning; research; knowledge transfer; and regional engagement.

Frank Ziegle, director of the Centre for Higher Education, a higher education think-tank in Germany, said the EC's system allows students to personalise the rankings according to their own interests and needs.

Students can identify comparable institutions in their specific field of interest, and adjust the importance they give to features such as faculty teaching, continuing with an academic career, or employment opportunities.

The EC hopes to roll out the new system in Europe by early 2013, Zeigle said.