Global rankings: the awe, the envy, the hate, the fear
If university rankings have become something of an industry, it is almost as nothing compared with the industry of assessing and (usually) criticising rankings. League tables are everywhere, but they are not as ubiquitous as the critiques of them. In fact if I were compiling a new table I would be pretty distraught if I couldn’t attract a heap of robust denunciations.
Some of these critiques are exercises in hyperbole, and some are more measured. The latest in the latter category is an assessment published by the European Universities Association, Global University Rankings and their Impact. The author, Latvian professor Andrejs Rauhvargers, argues that all the better known league tables really only measure research output, that they pretty much ignore most of the world’s 17,000 or so universities because they use criteria that are irrelevant to them, but that on the other hand they cause universities to try to behave like Harvard or Cambridge (however hopeless that objective might be), thereby destroying diversity of mission.
It is not difficult to sympathise with this perspective, not least because some of his conclusions are correct. But then again, as the author also acknowledges, rankings are popular, and they have focused attention not just on the performance of individual institutions, but perhaps more importantly on national higher education policies and priorities. Countries wanting to be recognised as knowledge societies need their universities to perform well in global rankings.
The truth is, really, that global rankings are here to stay, and that they will continue to recognise scholarly output above anything else, though with some modifiers. Personally I have no great problem with that. I would also be quite relaxed about the impact of global rankings on individual universities. I don’t actually see any destruction of diversity: Harvard is totally different from Caltech, and both are in the top 10 in the key league tables. I would also suggest that aiming for a particular range within the rankings – say, an institutional aim to be in the global top 100, or to be ranked at all – is not sensible. It is far better to pursue an institutional mission in the most excellent way available, and let league table position be a by-product rather than a strategic aim; it is not in any case an aim that institutional strategy alone can deliver. I was of course pleased when my last university, DCU, entered the global top 300 in the Times Higher Education rankings, but it was never one of our strategic aims.
And in the meantime, if rankings increase interest in higher education and encourage the provision or facilitation of resources, then that’s good. For those who don’t make it into the top rankings, that isn’t the end of the world either; many are highly successful and generate considerable income without ever being ranked.
So maybe a good idea for the rankings sceptics is to let go of this obsession and just move on.