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A worthless rating 1

Just when I thought this was going to be a quiet week, Latvijas Avize in cooperation with University of Latvia released the first ever rating of higher educational establishments in Latvia. And here is a big surprise: University of Latvia is #1 and Stockholm School of Economics in Riga is #5. After a closer look, however, the ‘findings’ aren’t surprising at all. For the record, here is why University of Latvia may not be #1, definitely not in business and economics.

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Reason #1: The rating compares apples and oranges

What is the point of saying that "Liepajas Pedagogical Academy" (Liepajas Pedagogijas Akademija) is #19 and "School of Banking" (Banku Augstskola) is #26??! That's it's better to study pedagogy than banking? Students who want to study finance are interested in which institution offers the best program in finance. I see no reason why they should be interested in the quality of a program in chemistry. Lumping together universities and specialized schools results in comparisons that are meaningless. A proper rating should compare economics departments with economics departments, and chemistry departments with chemistry departments.

Reason #2: Sloppy work

The rating is based on official data from the Ministry of Education. In some cases, these could be very misleading. Lets take University of Latvia (UoL) VS Stockholm School of Economics in Riga (SSE-Riga). An important feature of SSE-Riga is that most professors come from SSE in Stockholm. They fly in, teach their courses, then go back to Stockholm. Resident faculty (such as myself), which is the basis for the ministry data, are relatively few. Every potential student is aware of this but not the author of the rating. Needless to say, accounting for non-resident faculty is likely to result in a rather different rating for SSE-Riga. And this is just one example. Generally, this demonstrates lack of scrutiny for the data used in constructing the rating, which casts serious doubt on the whole thing. Interestingly, since the rating seems to be based on a master's thesis at UoL, such sloppiness in data analysis says something about the quality of supervision and evaluation at this institution.

Reason #3: It's the quality, stupid!

The authors of the rating seems oblivious to the fact that education is about quality, and not the quantity. Two important factors in the rating are the number of professors with a PhD and the number of publications. I will now focus on economics and, more narrowly, UoL VS SSE-Riga. The rating is produced by, among other things, comparing the number of professors with a PhD at schools like UoL and SSE-Riga. However, an economics PhD at SSE-Riga is quite different from a PhD in UoL. Most (if not all) of the UoL faculty earned their PhDs in the USSR when economics was, shall we say, a bit different. Think about it for a moment. What is the value of a PhD in economics earned in country that was one of the world's biggest economic failures? On the other hand, most PhDs at SSE-Riga (and SSE-Stockholm) earned their degrees in U.S., UK, and Western Europe. Who do you want to teach you about market economy?

Or, take the number of publications where UoL is said to have 391 as compared with SSE-Riga's 5. Now this is a very big difference so it's important to understand where it comes from. Unfortunately, a direct comparison is meaningless because the UoL figure lumps together (rather successful) physics and chemistry departments with some rather less successful departments. Lets focus on economics. A quick look at EconLit, world's most comprehensive database of economics journal publications, reveals 12 publications for University of Latvia. Recall that most of SSE-Riga's professors come from SSE in Stockholm, which scores 726 publications in EconLit database. It is also important WHERE you publish! The world is full of academic journals but only relatively few have good reputations. A quick glance reveals most of UoL’s 12 publications are in low quality journals. SSE faculty published in world's top journals like the American Economic Review. To sum up, education is about quality, and not quantity. It seems that the authors of the ranking either do not understand this, or choose not to control for this.

Reason #4: What about earnings?

We can have lots of schools' rankings that that look at the number of PhDs, publication records, student-to-professor ratio, and what not. Yet what matters most to students is their eventual success in the labor market. Will they find a job? How much they will earn? This is the ultimate measure of a diploma's value. So why not make a comparison of graduates from SSE-Riga and UoL? Although I don't have such data, I suspect the UoL will not be pleased with the results of such a comparison...

In Latvian here

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I suspect the reason if even simpler - the rating was produced by the University of Latvia. Naturally, they assigned the first place to themselves. With all the data compatibility issues that you mentioned, it is pretty easy to tweak the methodology a bit to get the necessary results. As the application period approaches and competition for applicants gets tougher and tougher, we should not expect the UoL to admit the sad truth about their program's quality.

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