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.

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9 Comments on “Global rankings: the awe, the envy, the hate, the fear”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The issue with Rankings is that unavoidable connection with competitive team sports.
    Here’s a question, could a current day Kant occur in an out of the way university. And even another question, does a Kant require an out of the way university to exist at all, then OR now.

  2. Al Says:

    Surely you couldn’t condone finite resources being speculated in an attempt to gain ranking?
    They are a distraction to good work being done.


    • But Al – that’s *exactly* what I was saying! I don’t condone it! It makes no sense to do it.

      • Al Says:

        Accepted.
        I dont think that the ranking system is benign, but your are right in that it is here to stay.

        Your easily digestible example where:
        “if rankings increase interest in higher education and encourage the provision or facilitation of resources, then that’s good.” would be a different example than where resources, not extra resources! are following our ranking ascensionists.
        Your priorities looked sound in DCU where merit was awarded for work done, but I wonder if it is easier for some to try to chase the merit with half arsed attempts at work.
        The ratings issue also has a particular difficulty with Ireland in that it is the Govt’s intention to have 70% of the school leaving population go on to third level education. The naked question being will this 70% drag down or limit our standing in the international rankings. Within this difficulty is the other problem of can third level offer something meaningful to the 70% of the population.

  3. cormac Says:

    I don’t see studies of university rankings as an industry, or as an obsession. I think that’s a bit unfair. The more influential such rankings are, the more important it is that they are subject to rigorous investigation.
    As I’ve pointed out before, a great deal of the research output of Ivy League colleges is built on students who were trained in European and Asian universities – so it’s important we don’t blindly follow the rankings and try to emulate the American undergraduates schools in every way..
    MIT doesn’t feature much in many ranking schemes, yet it is far ahead of Harvard in areas such as technical expertise, innovation and spin off companies

  4. jfryar Says:

    Personally I feel it’s my duty to argue against any measurement system that fails to quote error margins in the analysis. We’d expect better of our students, we’d expect better of our peers, we should expect better of attempts to measure the ‘goodness quotient’ of a university.

    In relation to any other matter, academics would reject such rankings out of hand. Many do, as you’ve stated in your blog. What we surely can’t do is agree that they’re both flawed and trivialise educational establishments, then use the results to promote the very same institutions. Or is hypocrisy now par for the course in student recruitment?

  5. cormac Says:

    Hi Ferdinand, that’s interesting about MIT, but in a way it proves my point – in some rankings MIT doesn’t feature at all, because it lacks a large humanities department.
    The fundamental problem with university rankings is Cormac’s Conjecture; that the variation in standard between disciplines in a given college may be larger than the variation between the ‘average’ results of different colleges. So, from the point of view of an applicant to a particular discipline , the error margin is larger than the measurement – comparing univesities is a bit like comparing cities.


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