To understand the growing importance of cross-national university assessments, you first have to understand the extent to which higher education has become a truly global institution. Students now hopscotch from country to country more than ever before. Western universities set up branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. Nations from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia compete intensely to create top-quality research universities. Perhaps inevitably, institutions like Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have created university rankings to provide information about this fast-growing academic marketplace.


Yet critics have long noted that many factors used in various national and global rankings to determine university excellence – student qualifications, research spending, and faculty salaries, for instance – are measures of inputs. To better judge educational quality also requires assessing outputs. That could mean gauging research productivity (a not-always-easy, but I think legitimate approach), but output measures should also include a careful look at how much students really learn in the classroom. The absence of such learning measures has been perhaps the most glaring deficiency of rankings to date. What’s more, in a global education market it’s increasingly helpful to have common metrics that indicate not only what students are learning within a given country, but also across national borders.


Against this backdrop, I’ve become a fan of the OECD’s relatively new AHELO project. Known formally as the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, AHELO focuses at the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning. It also assesses the demographic background of students, and the characteristics of each university, in order to put undergraduate learning in context. For now, AHELO is carrying out a multi-stage feasibility study in 15 countries, including the United States, Mexico, Finland, Egypt, Japan, and Australia. Small groups of students are being tested in “generic skills” such as analytical reasoning as well as in economics and engineering. Over the longer-term, AHELO analysts would like to go beyond taking a snapshot of learning to coming up with measures of value-added – helping answer the elusive question of how much students improve academically during their time at university.


AHEO is not intended to be a ranking. But assessment measures of all kinds, whatever their imperfections and whether or not they are called rankings, have the potential to be important consumer tools in a border-free educational world. When done well (and I believe rankings are already on the path to improvement) they can foster transparency, expose weak research, highlight effective instruction, and give universities the information they need to build the research and human capital on which innovation and economic growth depend. In the case of AHELO, a five-year-old OECD memo articulates its potential very well:


A direct assessment of the learning outcomes of higher education could provide governments with a powerful instrument to judge the effectiveness and international competitiveness of their higher education institutions, systems, and policies in the light of other countries’ performance, in ways that better reflection the multiple aims and contributions of tertiary education to society.




No venture like this is likely to be simple. There are  methodological difficulties to overcome, criticisms to contend with (both reasonable and less reasonable), and budget challenges to surmount. But AHELO’s potential seems unmistakable. In a rapidly globalizing academic world that lacks the kind of information students, universities, and governments need, AHELO promises to do a lot to close that gap.


Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation and former education editor of U.S. News & World Report. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, which won the Frandson Award for Literature in the Field of Continuing Higher Education and is being translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, and Arabic. He is also coeditor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation, published by Harvard Education Press in April 2011.

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Join the discussions: What do you think is the most glaring deficiency of University rankings to date?