Higher Education, Internationalisation

The Times Higher Education definition of international university – A critical analysis of the International Outlook Indicators

Use them wisely(2)

Exactly a month ago, the Times Higher Education published yet another university ranking, the top 100 most international universities for 2015.

“Both the diversity of a university’s student body and the extent to which its academics collaborate with international colleagues are signs of how global an institution really is and these factors are among the 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators that allow the Times Higher Education to produce the most comprehensive global university rankings in the world.” ~ THE

THE uses “international outlook” indicator to rank the universities, and the same indicators have been used since 2011 for easy comparison purposes. [Browse the top 100 most international universities for 2014 and here is a table showing the top 10 for the year 2014 and 2015]

An institution CANNOT be classified as being international solely based on the ratio of international to domestic staff, ratio of international to domestic students and the proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that have at least one international co-author.

I am sure you will  agree with me that THE university list can be extensively analysed, however this article will highlight only ONE critic against each of these 3 mentioned factors.

Let’s have a deeper look at the international outlook factors taken into consideration by THE, which according to them provide ‘the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments’.

THE 13 performance indicators are grouped into five areas:

  • Teaching: the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
  • Research: volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
  • Citations: research influence (worth 30 per cent)
  • Industry income: innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • International outlook: staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

These factors are used to classify institutions based on subject, and a hoard more categories. For the top 100 most international universities, the international outlook group of indicators is used.

THE international outlook indicator is itself comprised of 3 sub indicators:

  • The ratio of international to domestic students (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • The ratio of international to domestic staff (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • The proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that have at least one international co-author and reward higher volumes (worth 2.5 per cent).

According to THE, these indicators takes into consideration campus diversity and the extent to which academics collaborate with international colleagues on research projects – both signs of how global an institution is in its outlook.

  1. The ratio of international to domestic students (worth 2.5 per cent)

“The ability of a university to attract undergraduates and postgraduates from all over the planet is key to its success on the world stage: this factor is measured by the ratio of international to domestic students.” ~ THE ~
Critic: Attracting undergraduates and taught postgraduates from only few countries, like the case currently, with Chinese and Middle East students, and until recently Indian students, does not give an institution a more international outlook. Attracting doctoral postgraduates from many different countries is a much more tangible factor. Unfortunately, THE considers only universities with undergraduates in its list.

Why does THE not take into consideration the ratio of undergraduates, taught postgrads and doctoral postgrads in its mathematical equations, each with varying weight.

It is NOT the ratio of international to domestic students which should be considered, but instead the number of countries from which all these international students come from.

  1. The ratio of international to domestic staff (worth 2.5 per cent)

“The top universities also compete for the best faculty from around the globe. So in this category we adopt a 2.5 per cent weighting for the ratio of international to domestic staff.” ~ THE ~
Critic: If I am not wrong, most staff members are junior and have recently finished their doctoral studies, again relating to the previous point, that it is the ratio of international to domestic doctoral students which must be considered.

All these junior staff initially start work straight away on their students’ visa, and then apply for a work permit, or like in the case of UK, the formerly known IGS/PWS or the doctoral scheme. Within few years time, these young academics manage to get their papers to be citizen of the country and are no more classified as international staff. Some manage to obtain citizenship far earlier if during their 4+ years of doctoral studies, they got married to a local citizen.

Does this mean that universities, especially those in countries with ridiculous visa requirements for foreign academics, will find themselves with a lower international to domestic staff ratio? Or adding young foreign staff to the list will maintain their ratio of international to domestic staff?

What should really be taken into consideration is the ratio of academics who have worked for more than 3 years in the institution.

Let’s face it; a young foreign postdoc teaching few modules has little say in the policies and strategic management of the university. They are often on short term contracts and live in fear of losing their jobs. And worst, they cannot even influence their taught subject area, because the board which is made up of senior members decide what is to be taught and how it must be taught (very much often not keeping in touch with current technologies and teaching methods).

  1. The proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that have at least one international co-author and reward higher volumes (worth 2.5 per cent).

“In the third international indicator, we calculate the proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that have at least one international co-author and reward higher volumes. This indicator, which is also worth 2.5 per cent, is normalised to account for a university’s subject mix and uses the same five-year window as the “Citations: research influence” category .” ~ THE ~

Critic: Back to the first indicator, the highest ratio of international to domestic students is among the doctoral candidates. And often these students were already teaching in their country and have applied for a scholarship from their country/institution or obtained a leave for higher education from their institution. Most of these researchers, after obtaining their doctorate, must go through a long process, often having to replicate several copies of their doctoral theses to submit to their country/institution, and obtain several referral letters. And they must rejoin their country/institution. And as we are all aware, following publication of a thesis, several papers can be edited and published out of it. So once these Drs are back in their country, and their supervisors, who are still in the study host country, publish their findings, automatically 1 co-author is classified as international.

Anyone having experience in Higher Education will agree that the above explained scenario mostly relate to Sciences/Engineering students, who often publish on average 2-3 papers in high impact factor journals, solely from doctoral research findings.

For a much better international outlook, any publication with 1 international co-author who was not previously a student of the institution in the past 1 year is a much more efficient criterion to be considered towards the international outlook statistics.

Food for the grey matter;

Does the THE list of top 100 most international universities do true justice to all these parents, potential students, staff and current students of the institutions listed or which fall out of this list?

Does adding internationalisation on strategic agenda for next decade, and pumping money on foreign students’ recruitment, truly means international outlook?


Numbers and charts can be detrimental to success, use them wisely. [Tweet this!]


Here is a short list of interesting posts to show how data representations/ranking can be misleading/detrimental. I have also added a short summary.

  1. Here is another uni rankings from the European University Association, where UMR was used.  UMR is a multidimensional ranking of HE institutions developed by a consortium led by the German-based Centre for Higher Education and the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.
    UMR was an initiative of the European Commission to provide a performance-based ranking and information tool to “radically improve the transparency of the higher education sector”. Many of its indicators, especially those relating to teaching and learning, are “rather remote proxies to quality or performance”. Tia Loukkola and Rita Morais, fwho wrote the survey report, found the approaches “not very systematic or carefully considered” in showing hos rankings are beneficial to the universities.
  2. The best stats you’ve ever seen is a 2012 TED talk by Hans Rosling. It highlights how numbers must be used to genuinely reflect the reality of situations.
  3. Another  post which can convince those who still do not agree.

Top 10 international universities for 2014 and 2015

THE top 10 most international universities for 2014
THE top 10 most international universities for 2014
THE top 10 most international universities for 2015
THE top 10 most international universities for 2015

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