University rankings frequently struggle to delineate the separate contributions of institutional size and excellence. This presents a problem for public policy and university leadership, for example by blurring the pursuit of excellence with the quest for growth. This paper provides some insight into the size/excellence debate by exploring the explicit contribution of institutional size to the results of the Shanghai ranking indicators. Principal components analysis of data from the Shanghai ranking (2013 edition) is used to explore factors that contribute to the variation of the total score. The analysis includes the five non-derived ARWU indicators (Alumni, Award, HiCi, S&N and PUB) and uses the number of equivalent full-time academic staff (FTE) as a measure of size. Two significant but unequal factors are found, together explaining almost 85 % of the variance in the sample. A factor clearly associated with the size of the institution explains around 30 % of the variance. To sharpen the interpretation of the smaller factor as a measure of the effect of size, we extend the analysis to a larger set of institutions to eliminate size-dependent selection effects. We also show that eliminating outlying universities makes little difference to the factors. Our inferences are insensitive to the use of raw data, compared with the compressed and scaled indicators used by ARWU. We conclude that around 30 % of the variation in the ARWU indicators can be attributed to variation in size. Clearly, size-related factors cannot be overlooked when using the ranking results. Around 55 % of the variation arises from a component which is uncorrelated with size and which measures the quality of research conducted at the highest levels. The presence of this factor encourages further work to explore its nature and origins.
Docampo, D., & Cram, L. (2015). On the effects of institutional size in university classifications: the case of the Shanghai ranking. Scientometrics, 102(2), 1325-1346. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-014-1488-z