The impact of rankings on global higher education

Today over 60 countries have introduced national rankings, especially in emerging societies, and there are now a wide range of regional, specialist and professional rankings. What started as an academic exercise has now become a primary' driver of a geopolitical reputation race (Hazelkorn, 2014). Rauhvargers (2014; 2013) lists a few policy' implications which are a direct result of HERS influence:

  • • Immigration policies: For example, in the Netherlands, migrants who possess a degree from a higher education institution which is ranked in the top 200 have the privilege of obtaining ‘highly-skilled migrant’ status.
  • • Recognition of qualifications: The Russian Federation adopted Decision No. 389 which establishes an automatic recognition of qualifications issued by' foreign HE institutions which are in the first 300 positions of the SRC’s ARWU, QS and THE rankings.
  • • Mergers are planned and underway in many European countries.
  • • Eligibility' of Partner Institutions: In 2012, the University’ Grants Commission in India announced that foreign universities entering into bilateral programme agreements would have to be among the global top 500 in either THE or the Shanghai Ranking’s ARWU.

Hazelkorn (2014) also identifies changes to academic work practices, supporting the introduction of market-based salaries with merit or performance pay and attractive packages to reward high achieving scholars. Rankings led to universities increasingly opting to collaborate with other institutions that are in the same league as themselves. This includes the formation of strategic alliances and exclusive university networks such as LERU (the League of European Research Universities) or Universitas 21 (a global network of research-intensive universities for the 21st century') (Kehm, 2014). National systems are subtly' affected by the HERS influence on governmental policy which rewards vertical stratification. Another observable trend identified by Kehm (2014) is that of‘Isomorphism’, i.e. the lower-ranked institutions trying to imitate the higher ranked ones in order to improve their ranking position.

High-ranking universities are sought after, elite and usually expensive. Most of the students that attend these institutions are wealtltier than the average population in their home country', invest thousands on SAT tutors, private college advisors and coaches, basically, anything to be accepted into one of the best establishments in the world (Mills, 2012). University fees also increase exponentially to study at these institutions who strive to maintain and improve their annual ranking (Rauhvargers, 2014). The price of higher education is therefore rising tremendously and many' believe that it’s getting too expensive (Mills, 2012; Altbach et al., 2009). Higher fees also prompt institutions to provide useful public information to aid prospective students, while greater competition encourages them to devote more resources to marketing initiatives (Scott, 2013). Altbach et al. (2009) suggests that this financial pressure is increasing at rates beyond which most countries’ public revenue streams can keep pace.

The impact of rankings on universities

The rankings immediately secured great prominence in higher education, policy, and public arenas and have already had discernible effects in institutional and policy behaviours (Marginson & van der Wende, 2007). So much so, that Marginson (2007) questions whether rankings serve the purposes of higher education or whether institutions are changing to fit the ranking criteria. It is becoming increasingly difficult for higher education institutions to ignore global rankings (Rauhvargers,

2013) , which have had a significant impact on universities, individual university departments and national education systems locally, regionally and globally. Therefore, it has become almost mandatory for modern university communities to recognise and engage with the importance of rankings (Efimova & Avralev, 2013).

When competing universities decide to submit the data requested by the ranking providers, they engage in a relationship with the HERS. Highly ranked institutions are often obliged to invest to maintain or improve their ranking position (Rauhvargers, 2013) which has led to an increasing number of strategies being employed by institutions to improve their rank (Rauhvargers, 2013). Espeland and Sauder (2007) conceptualise the nature of this reactivity as patterns that shape how people within organisations make sense of things and how they interact with rankings, each other, and other institutions. They identified two main mechanisms that induce reactivity as ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecies and ‘commensuration’:

  • 1 “Self-fulfilling prophecies: Processes by which reactions to social indicators confirm the expectations or predictions that are embedded in measures or which increase the validity of the measures by encouraging behaviour that conforms to it” (Espeland & Sauder, 2007, p. 11).
  • 2 “Commensuration: The transformation of qualities into quantities that share a metric (It) shapes what we pay attention to, which things are connected to other things, and how we express sameness and difference” (Espeland & Sauder, 2007, p. 16).

Locke (2014) maintains that these two mechanisms of reactivity are visible on a multitude of levels when analysing the impact rankings have on institutions of higher learning. Universities create self-fulfilling prophecies when they adopt a position on a ranking system as an explicit institutional goal or policy (Locke,

2014) . Ranking systems simplify and de-contextualise information so that it can be easily integrated and organised in particular ways (Hazelkorn, 2014; Scott, 2013) but some important qualitative information is inevitably discarded in the name of simplicity and practicality (Locke, 2014; Dill & Soo, 2005).

Universities now invest considerable resources in institutional research, recruiting full-time managers to work with ranking agencies (Trounson, 2013). In some cases, universities have revised class sizes, altered departmental targets and merged some departments because university rankings systems reward low student/staff ratios and research productivity (Hazelkorn, 2014). Locke (2014) mentions the impact of ranking positions on staff morale suggesting that they become a source of stress for employees, especially when the institution performs worse than expected. The high socio-political power of indicators invites cheating or ‘gaming’ in the production of data. For example, a well-known practice is the buy-in of star researchers and Nobel Prize winners on part-time contracts (Rauhvargers, 2013). University governing bodies are usually more susceptible to ambitious expectations about where the institution could or should be positioned and can at times exert pressure on university management (Locke, 2014). Another ranking related phenomenon is the intense médiatisation of policymaking and institutional management (Scott, 2013) which makes universities look increasingly similar to commercial organisations.

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