Ranking and the notion of world-class

Some HERS claim that the practice of ranking universities focuses predominantly on the needs of the students (Downing, 2013; Baty, 2014). However, it is quite evident that higher education systems and universities alike are significantly influenced by the rising tide of the global ranking phenomenon (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017; Wint & Downing, 2017; Espeland & Sauder, 2015; Locke, 2014; Efimova & Avralev, 2013). Presence in the rankings is often associated with world-class institutions (Marginson, 2013) and world-class universities are seen as essential to contribute and compete within the global knowledge economy (Wang, Cheng & Liu, 2013). A recent international trend sees governments implementing initiatives to create world-class institutions within their jurisdictions (Wint & Downing, 2017; Hazelkorn & Ryan, 2013; Wang et al., 2013).

These initiatives are present in countries with a long history of higher education as well as countries with young higher education systems and many times these systems are focused on addressing regional and national skills shortages and improving access and participation (Hazelkorn & Ryan, 2013; Marginson, 2013). The milieu of a developing nations’ higher education system encompasses strategies to develop human capital, to increase student access, broaden teaching infrastructure and capacity and increase regional collaborations. Higher education models for a developing continent, like Africa, are predominantly based on a mass model (Ndoye, 2008) and this creates a mismatch of higher education priorities which may become increasingly negligent to the development of the individual countries’ higher education system.

The universities themselves strive to rise in rank and ranking information is frequently used as marketing material and instrumental to attract both international students and local students (Downing, 2012). Every university wants to be ranked and their faculty want to be associated with a world-class university (Marginson, 2013; Hazelkorn, 2014). Today ever-expanding world university rankings like the Shanghai Ranking’s ARWU, QS WUR and THE WUR, each rank more than

1,000 institutions. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions to avoid HERS, and with more HERS as well as more diverse rankings on the horizon, universities, their staff, students and the public need to be educated about the influence they have on their universities and higher education system.

Previous studies have indicated that added pressure on higher education personnel, to obtain higher scores on performance indicators in order achieve a higher-ranking position, impacts negatively on staff morale and contributes to high stress levels (Espeland & Sauder, 2015; Hazelkorn, 2014; Locke, 2014). Similar influences are highlighted in various countries and regions, but none of them directly compares the impact or extent of them scientifically although it is clear that influences exerted by HERS on institutions are filtered through context and can therefore not be seen as generic in size and strength. These contextual variations also bring about a myriad of reactions from institutions.


Inevitably, given the increasingly global nature of higher education, academics will continue to debate the nature and validity of rankings for higher education institutions (Brooks, 2005; Dill and Soo, 2005; Altbach, 2006b). To date, most evidence presented in favour of one or other viewpoint or ranking system, has concentrated on the validity of the ranking processes or criteria and, with a few exceptions (Marginson, 2007), has ignored the question of whether ranking in general is of some benefit in the global higher education sector. However, there is another more positive approach to rankings which argues that whilst ranking systems might not always be objective or fair, they are nonetheless here to stay and (used sensibly) are an excellent way to drive positive changes within institutions that will eventually benefit both students and faculty. An often neglected but obvious aspect of the new rankings culture relates to the potential benefits individual institutions can gain from the ranking systems. This pragmatic view acknowledges that rankings are here to stay and have been with us long before the advent of the current dominant three ranking systems in 2003, 2004 and 2009. The question of whether rankings are propelling us towards more homogeneity or merely providing at least some comparative measures of an institutions global standing and a catalyst for further healthy competition remains unanswered. Whatever answer is given to this question, there can be little doubt that the notion of a ‘World Class University’ is becoming ever more important to governments, employers, investors, alumni, students, applicants and academics and, without some attempt at establishing relatively objective criteria, it is difficult to identify which universities may qualify today, and how those institutions with real ambition might qualify tomorrow. Reliance on reputation alone is a recipe for stagnation and the avoidance of healthy competition and encourages potentially biased selfjustification. All rankings inevitably invite criticism when their criteria are published and it is often easier to concentrate on what is wrong with them than tty’ to identify how they might be used to bring about practical positive strategic change which will benefit all stakeholders, not least the ultimate product of our endeavours, the quality of graduates and research output. Whilst rankings are necessarily imperfect and will always inspire debate, they are also currently inspiring and creating the opportunity for many institutions to emerge from the long shadows cast by historical reputation alone.

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