The positive side of HERS

Downing (2013) elaborates on some of the positive value of rankings and argues that prospective students and their parents can make informed decisions about institutions from a diverse set of global offerings. Prospective students, nationally and internationally, have access to information about the strengths and weaknesses of the institution, and of some departments within that institution (Downing, 2013; Sowter, 2013). Hazelkorn (2011) acknowledges that a good ranking position also makes it easier to attract international students. Institutional rankings can encourage university faculty to focus more effectively on the core business of higher education, teaching and learning, research and knowledge transfer and senior institutional managers can foster internal competition between departments to drive international competitiveness (Locke, 2014).

Another potentially valuable aspect of rankings is that it encourages the collection and publication of reliable national data related to respective higher education systems (Rauhvargers, 2014). Rankings are a useful benchmarking exercise for institutions and can help them make strategic decisions (Baty, 2014). They also serve as critical self-reflection tools whereby universities can use comparative citation information to enhance strategies to increase research quality processes (Downing, 2013). Universities can justify claims on resources based on improved ranking performance, and a high ranking will increase an institution’s ability to attract good partners and funders (Hazelkorn, 2011).

Younger institutions are now able to demonstrate to their governments, the higher education sector, funding bodies and the public that they have evolved or improved in certain areas (Downing, 2013). Industry’ makes use of ranking information to identify where to invest in higher education and innovation (Baty, 2014). Furthermore, Hazelkorn (2014) points out that HERS’ inability to accurately measure ‘quality’, exposed a deficit in higher education information sparking meaningful debates about the definition of higher education ‘quality’, ‘value’ and ‘impact’, and how these should be measured.

4 ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’

The case for consumers

Rankings already exert substantial influence on the long-term development of higher education across the world (Marginson & van der Wende, 2007) with three ranking systems currently in positions of relative global dominance. The oldest system is that prepared by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University' (SJTU) which was first published in 2003 and is now known as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). The QS World University' Rankings published by' Quac-quarelli Symonds (QSWUR) was first published in 2004 alongside their partners Times Higher Education (THE). Around 2008 to 2009, this partnership ended and THE launched their own World University Ranking (THE WUR). These three rankings, often known as the ‘Big Three’, recognise the growing impact of the global environment on higher education systems and institutions and the importance placed on some means of identifying institutional excellence by prospective consumers. Some of these consumers have the advantage of government funded opportunities to access higher education, whilst many others will be spending their own money' on obtaining the best education possible for themselves or, more likely, their offspring.

In almost every walk of life, we can make informed choices because we are provided with appropriate ways of assessing the quality' of what we purchase and consequently narrowing down the choice of products we wish to investigate further. The advent of rankings has made it easier for prospective students and their families to access information about an institution that will assist with that choice. Whilst it does not always provide information about the strengths and weaknesses of the disciplines and departments encompassed within any' given university', at undergraduate level it is often the reputation and ranking of the university' that will encourage further investigation. In fact, outside of academic circles (and in some cases inside as well) the strengths and weaknesses of departments or disciplines within an institution are often ignored in favour of acknowledging that someone has a degree from a highly ranked institution. Academics, students, their parents and employers recognise this, and as students become more globally mobile, the reputation of any university', contributed to by' its standing or ranking comparative to others, will continue to grow in importance.

We live in societies where competition is often regarded as a necessity in order to drive progress, and to continuously improve both the quality' of products and the efficiency with which they are produced. Is higher education so different or remote from the real world that we are justified in arguing that we should not be subject to these universal forces? Of course not, in fact research has been driven by' competition for hundreds of years and mankind has nonetheless managed to innovate and thrive. Rankings systems and criteria do encourage us to identify and engage in extensive benchmarking against institutions with a higher ranking than our own, providing some fascinating insights into how global peers tackle certain issues. Consequently, we can develop institutional systems which incorporate the best of benchmarked global practices, whilst ensuring these meet local requirements. This approach facilitates the identification of clear, agreed quantitativeperformance indicators for learning and teaching, globalisation and research which can be assessed at departmental level and within Colleges and Schools.

 
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