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Korea boycotts QS but “a lot to be proud about”

QS is offering one-on-one meetings with the 52 Korean institutions boycotting the QS World Rankings, in a bid to provide full transparency to universities branding the new methodology as flawed.

Senior VP of QS Sowter visited Korea in the lead up to the rankings being unveiled. Photo: Unsplash

The reduced weight of the Faculty-Student Ratio metric impacted Korea's positioning

In June, QS unveiled the results of its 2024 World Rankings, which showed a significant shift of positions for many regions and individual institutions across the globe, due to changes made to the metrics of which universities are ranked on, in what QS is calling a “reset”.

The positions of all Korean universities but one suffered under the new methodology and caused some 52 universities, including Sejong University which rose by 150 places, to come together to boycott the rankings.

“The competitiveness of Korean universities is steadily increasing in many respects. Thus, there is no reason that Korean university rankings [should] drop this drastically,” a newly assembled group of universities, the University Rankings Forum of Korea said, as reported by University World News.

The group of universities disagreed with the calculations from the newly-introduced metric International Research Network, which QS says is designed to be a measure of the the diversification of international research partnerships, rather than the number.

“It’s designed to encourage institutions to actively seek to forge [networks] in new geographies and bring increasingly diverse minds together to solve complex problems,” said Ben Sowter, senior vice president, QS.

It has been reported that some Korean universities believed this metric may put non-English speaking countries at a disadvantage.

Sowter refutes this, highlighting the success of countries such as Brazil, Spain, Italy, France and Egypt in this particular indicator.

A spokesperson for QS highlighted to The PIE that this particular indicator has been part of its evaluation for its Asia Rankings since 2018, and included in the World University Rankings by subject for the past two editions.

They also emphasised that the inclusion of the IRN indicator had not raised any concerns until now.

“Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the same indicator was introduced in the previous year’s edition of the rankings, without any weighting applied” the spokesperson continued, adding that this decision was made to give universities a year to “familiarise themselves” with the metric and its implications.

However, the main factor impacting the performance of Korean universities is the decision to reduce the Faculty-Student Ratio from 20% to 10%, an indicator which has historically been the strongest for Korean institutions.

The justification from QS for reducing the emphasis on this particular dimension comes down to a variety of changes in universities in recent years, said Sowter. It includes the onset of better learning technology and the use of teaching assistants in classrooms that don’t necessarily contribute to faculty numbers, such as postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Sowter highlighted that the 10% weight of the indicator is still a significant contribution to the overall score, and is “part of the reason Korea still shines in the QS methodology”.

He noted that Korea has more universities in the top 100 than France, Germany and Japan and has the same number of institutions in the top 100 as China.

“From that perspective, when you cast that across their population or GDP or a variety of other indicators, Korea’s universities are really punching above their weight across this basket of metrics and there’s a lot to be proud about,” he said.

The group of universities argued that methodology changes should be “step by step, not this radical and abrupt”.

However, QS said that making the changes all at once was deliberate and necessary for the ranking’s stability.

“The bar was quite high for justifying changes and when we did make the changes, we would need to make a batch of them all at once so that then we could quickly re-establish year-on-year stability and enable institutions and other stakeholders once more to use our rankings in a responsible and careful way to monitor some of the things that are important to their sense of institutional performance progress,” argued Sowter.

As a result of the disagreement, the universities have said they will not be providing QS with data for future rankings under the new methodology.

However, the boycott does not necessarily mean that the universities will not be included in next year’s rankings, with QS suggesting that data can be obtained by other means. The company remains hopeful for an agreement to be made however.

“The rankings that we produce are designed for prospective international students to ideally give them an objective viewpoint on the world of international higher education, to make informed choices…. in order to do that, we need to be able to depict a complete picture,” said Sowter.

“We are hopeful as we begin to work individually with some of these universities that they will recognise that there is ongoing value in participation,” he added.

“We aim to to be as transparent as we can”

“The strength of underlying metrics suggest that this is a group of universities that will likely improve from next edition onwards once the reset is behind us. We’ll be continuing to reach out proactively and we will invite them to submit data directly.”

QS has invited ranked universities to reach out for a one-to-one meeting, through which QS is keen to break down specific data to give a detailed understanding to all colleagues, including those in Korea, as well as a separate webinar being held for Korean universities.

“We aim to to be as transparent as we can and to help institutions both collectively and individually understand the implications of the changes in the methodology to their outcomes this year and perhaps more importantly, how this new basket of metrics can help them monitor and drive that performance into the future,” said Sowter.

All universities received an “extensive fact file” weeks prior to the rankings were publicised, The PIE learned, and Sowter visited Korea before the unveiling to visit stakeholders and provide them with details required to understand the shift in positions.

“We appreciate the concerns raised by Korean universities, and we are committed to fostering transparency and understanding,” a spokesperson for QS told The PIE.

“We encourage continued dialogue and collaboration to address any questions or issues that may arise. We aim to provide a fair and comprehensive evaluation that reflects the diverse strengths and achievements of universities worldwide.”

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