By Ruth A. Pagell
(21 Mar 2023) I ended RR 54 Academic Freedom and University rankings by warning readers that academic freedom is fragile. The next day, V-DEM released its 2023 Academic Freedom Index (AFi) which illustrates just how fragile it is. I also learned from QS that AFi is used in one of its Sustainability indicators. Does it have a noticeable impact on the rankings?
ACADEMIC FREEDOM INDEX UPDATE 2023
The Academic Freedom Update for 2023 reports more declines in academic freedom (Kinzelbach, et.al.) The update analyses the ten-year drop in freedom in five countries, China, Hong Kong, India, the United States, and Mexico. It also uses a visualization that arranges countries by scores. For actual scores for each underlying metric, download the dataset. The news release for the update points out that declines are in countries with both autocratic and democratic governments. (Kinzelbach & Pelke).
I was interested in updating the data that I had just provided in RR54 and exploring the relationship, if any, of a country’s academic freedom score with the QS sustainability rankings, especially the metric that incorporates AFi.
TABLE 1: AFi Rankings in 2022 AND 2023: Changes in the top 10 in the World and Asia
In the 2023 top ten, only Estonia, Luxembourg, and Finland are in the world top 10 in the other freedom rankings (Pagell). Czechia, Honduras, and Finland are new to the AFi top list. Drop-outs from the top ten are Sweden, which is on all the other lists, Switzerland which is number one in the Human Freedom Index, and Slovakia which is not in the top ten in other indexes. All the Asia top ten are on at least two other lists. Nepal and Mongolia are not included in the QS World or Sustainability rankings. The bottom ten percent AFi countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Myanmar, remain the same.
A week after the release of the updated AFi, the European University Association published its fourth scorecard on University Autonomy in Europe (Pruvot et.al.) University systems receive separate rankings in four categories. The categories are listed below with the top AFi countries that are in the top Autonomy rankings:
- Organizational – Finland (Table 3)
- Financial – Latvia (Table 4)
- Staffing – Czechia, Estonia, Luxembourg, Latvia, Finland (Table 5)
- Academic Autonomy – Estonia, Luxembourg, Finland (Table 6)
The report acknowledges that autonomy and academic freedom are related but not the same. It tells readers not to derive academic freedom conclusions from the Autonomy Scorecard. Chapter 5 discusses academic freedom in relation to countries’ constitutions (Pruvot, pg. 83).
Five of AFi’s top 10 countries are in the top categories in the Autonomy scorecard. Even the lower-ranked Autonomy countries are in AFi’s top fifty percent.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AS PART OF THE QS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT EDUCATION LENS
I was surprised to learn that the QS Sustainability rankings Impact of Education lens included AFi as a metric. QS has two Education lens. It took a lot of drilling down to find AFi in the Environmental Impact category It is one of five metrics in the category and it contributes ten percent to the category and one percent to overall sustainability rankings.
EXAMPLE 1: Metrics used in the IMPACT of EDUCATION lens
QS takes the score from the AFi “that indicates how free and open a country’s research culture is, and whether its academics can pursue research without threat or sanction.” It provides a link to the AFi dataset. https://support.qs.com/hc/en-gb/articles/6180863232540-Impact-of-Education
AFi AND QS UNIVERSITY RANKINGS
700 of the 1,422 universities in the QS World rankings qualified to be in the Sustainability rankings. As shown in Example 1, the metrics are unique, while the world’s top sustainability universities are familiar names. Five of the QS top ten universities in the World rankings are in the US, which has an AFi score of 76, four from the UK, with a score of 61, and one from Switzerland with a score of 36. Three of the top ten overall Impact of Education universities are from the US, two each from Canada and Australia, and one each from Japan, New Zealand, and the UK.
None of the QS 2023 World top ten are in the top ten Impact of Education sustainability ranking. Seven of the universities ranked in the top 10 of the Sustainability top ten are also top 10 in the Impact of Education.
QS selects its pool of universities for Sustainability rankings from its World Rankings. World rankings use academic and employer reputation and citation output, which together account for 70% of the score. Reputation and research account for 60 percent of the Impact of Education score.
TABLE 2: QS World, Sustainability, and Impact of Education top 10
NOTES: 1. Switzerland AFi dropped from 5 to 36; 2. Mexico AFi dropped from 79 to 100; 3. New Zealand dropped from 61 to 73. Australia’s University of New South Wales and University of Sydney are in the world top ten sustainability ranks as is the US’ University of Pennsylvania.
There are a limited number of universities from East Asia and a QS methodology that favors the existing top universities in the world. These factors contribute to the relationship between Asian world and sustainability rankings differing from the world relationships. Six of the Asian world’s top 10 are also in Sustainability’s top 10. Two more are in the Impact of Education top 10. The Universiti Malaya (3) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (10) are the only two Asian universities not in the categories I selected. There are three outliers, the American University of Beirut, India Institute of Technology Bombay, and Tongji U. The average AFi for the Asian World top 10 is 130 and for the Asian Impact of Education top 10 is 114.
TABLE 3: QS World, Sustainability, and Impact of Education top 10 for Asia
The updated Academic Freedom Index results further reinforce for me the importance of including many other environmental, economic, and social qualities of a country to reflect its education system. Haiti, for example, with no ranked universities in QS, THE, and even Scimago, which has over 4,000 universities, ranks higher than Japan. For example, in Freedom House, Japan is in the top tier as free, and Haiti in the bottom tier as not free. Only four Asian countries are in AFi’s top 50 percent and the QS sustainability pool includes universities from only two of them, South Korea and Taiwan. There are no universities from Nepal or Mongolia.
On a positive note, I commend QS for using only third-party data and including Afi. However, seventy percent of the scores for world inclusion make up 60 percent of the Impact of Education sustainability score. With such a limited Asian dataset and the AFi score ten percent of the Education score and one percent of the overall score, it is hard to determine if it has any impact on impact.
Personally, I think that to be meaningful in the current higher education environment, rankings need to expand the metrics they are using to define a university’s quality and limit the importance of rankings based on reputation.
Kinzelbach, K. et. al. ( 28 Feb 2023). Academic Freedom Index 2023 update. FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg and V-Dem Institute, https://academic-freedom-index.net/research/Academic_Freedom_Index_Update.pdf
Kinzelbach, K. & Pelke, L. (3 Mar 2023). Researchers at the University of Gothenburg and FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg publish the Academic Freedom Index update https://www.fau.eu/2023/03/02/news/research/academic-freedom-deteriorates-in-22-countries/
Pagell, Ruth. (1 Mar 2023). RR54-Appendix A, Academic freedom, Table 2: Top countries in the world in five freedom indexes, https://librarylearningspace.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Appendix-54-A-modified-002-Clive-edit.pdf
Pruvot, E.B., Esterman, T, & Popkhadze, N. (7 Mar 2023). University Autonomy in Europe IV: The scorecard 2023 .European University Association https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/eua%20autonomy%20scorecard.pdf
A list of all Ruth’s Rankings and News Updates is here.
*Ruth A. Pagell is emeritus faculty librarian at Emory University. After working at Emory, she was the founding librarian of the Li Ka Shing Library at Singapore Management University and then adjunct faculty [teaching] in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii. She has written and spoken extensively on various aspects of librarianship, including contributing articles to ACCESS – https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3238-9674