BRUSSELS—The European Commission has launched an online tool to rate universities worldwide. The new system, called U-Multirank , provides a more sophisticated alternative to cruder rankings by letting users select rating criteria out of 30 indicators in five areas: research, teaching, regional engagement, knowledge transfer, and international orientation. European universities, which tend to fare poorly in existing rankings, score better on some of these criteria.
Funded by the European Union, U-Multirank is presented as a departure from oft-criticized global rankings . Critics say that these charts—such as the Shanghai ranking  and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings —rely on inadequate indicators and meaningless aggregated scores.
“We are not producing league tables. We don't think it is worthwhile. … We don't even think it can be done methodologically and statistically in the right way,” said Frans van Vught, one of U-Multirank's project leaders, at a launch event here yesterday. 
Bernard Rentier, rector of the University of Liège in Belgium and a fierce critic of existing rankings, says he is pleased with the first results of U-Multirank and that the system's indicators are “relevant and enlightening” to compare his university's performance with others. But Ellen Hazelkorn, a specialist of rankings and director of research and enterprise at the Dublin Institute of Technology, points out that U-Multirank uses some of the same data as other rankings do, including citation rates or patent figures. Some of those numbers, such as the student-staff ratio, are controversial and “not necessarily meaningful” to assess quality, Hazelkorn says.
U-Multirank was produced by a group of institutions led by the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands and the Centre for Higher Education in Germany, and backed by €2 million from the European Union for the years 2013 to 2015. The system’s architects incorporated the same data sources as those in traditional rankings, but also introduced fresh indicators, such as interdisciplinary publications and joint publications with industry, as well as self-reported data from student surveys and universities themselves. (Out of 879 universities listed in the database, about 500 have volunteered to provide their own data.)
With this broad range of indicators, U-Multirank can compare “like with like” and display the strengths of institutions that are usually outshone in classical rankings, says project leader Frank Ziegele. “For instance, there might be a university that has no A [score] in internationalization” because it is serves primarily a local or national audience, Ziegele says. “This is perfectly fine. This university fulfills an important function for society.” U-Multirank can play up that diversity of roles and profiles, he says.
U-Multirank does provide a few ready-made rankings, including one based on research criteria . “American institutions of course are absolutely on top in terms of citation rates and other classical [criteria],” Ziegele says. But less renowned institutions, often from Europe, emerge at the top of the list in other categories, such as international publications or joint publications with industry.
“This is an attempt to put an end to the unfairness towards a great number of universities, like the 300 which never appeared in [another ranking], and which perform very well in some [areas],” said Androulla Vassiliou, the E.U. commissioner in charge of education, at yesterday's event.
Ziegele says he doesn't expect U-Multirank to push out other systems and that the appetite for traditional rankings will remain. “What I really hope is that our ranking is used for decision-making,” he says. “I could see governments piggybacking on it,” Hazelkorn says.
“[T]here’s still a danger that too many consumers – particularly in Asia – will prefer the precision (however spurious) and simplicity of [existing] league tables to the relativism of personalized rankings,” wrote Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates in Toronto, Canada, in a blog post yesterday . And if U-Multirank doesn't become very popular, universities, especially in North America, may be reluctant to spend time collecting the detailed information that the rankers ask for, Usher wrote.
U-Multirank hopes to convince the institutions that didn't volunteer their data to do so for next year's version. It also plans to include more universities and to add three disciplines (medicine, psychology, and computer science) to the current four (physics, business, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering). Rentier, for one, is optimistic about the ranking's future. “The system is led by scientists, very open to discussion and clarification. There's a real dialogue that we don't have with other rankings at all.”