The context for the development of higher education ranking systems (HERS)


This chapter charts the economic, technological and societal developments which provided and continue to provide such a rich environment for the successful growth of the various global higher education ranking systems. It considers the role played by the growth in consumerism, the impact of improvements in technology (particularly information and communication technology'), together with the rise in internationalisation and increased privatisation of higher education, in setting the scene for the successful development of HERS.

Digitisation and the exponential growth of the internet and social media massively changed human behaviour, making the internationalisation and outreach of higher education much more accessible to a new group of higher education consumers from across the globe (Lam, 2017). The last two decades have also seen the rise of many emerging economies, particularly in Asia but also elsewhere, with increasing affluence due to rapid and sustained GDP growth. This trend has seen an increase in student mobility to and from economies such as South East Asia, China, Korea, India, Africa, South America, the Middle East and Central Asia. In some of these countries, private education was the norm leading to a rise in the number of private institutions eager to gain tuition fees from the growing international market. These students and their families can be regarded as higher education consumers who benefit from some relatively objective information about their potential destination universities and countries (Altbach, 2007). This in turn has led to the development of what Downing (2013) refers to as the notion of a ‘World Class University’.

Therefore, the emergence of HERS can only be properly understood in this new 21st century environment of consumerism and higher education (Andersson and Mayer, 2017). Rapid globalisation has led to an ever-increasing demand for higher education and this has inevitably fostered a massive increase in the number of new universities, with the result that there are now well over 18,000 universities worldwide of which 16,000 were established in the last 50 years or so. With burgeoning international demand for higher education, an increasing number of universities and the rise of the private university, consistency and quality of provision becomes of paramount importance leading to further demand for some relatively objective means of comparing universities across the globe.

Consumerism, narcissism, technology and communication

Advances in technological and communication capabilities have undoubtedly increased society’s ability to compare different dimensions of human behaviour, and it would be the advent of the internet and improvements in speed of transmission of data that completed the business case for HERS. In almost every aspect of our daily lives, we are presented with appropriate ways to scrutinise the quality of goods and services (The Economist, 2018; Downing, 2013). For example, comparisons of restaurants, schools, and hospitals are now common practice (Marope & Wells, 2013). Some researchers contend that these factors have led to a global trend to ‘market’ higher education institutions (Scott, 2013). The context for the development of HERS was provided by this increasing desire from the consumer to compare, the rapid development of technological and communications ability and a growing recognition by some astute business minds that here was a business model unlike any other. One where the clients (universities) will be compelled to engage or be questioned as to why they do not feature in the rankings. The desire from the universities was also a very pertinent factor. As necessarily elitist, and sometimes narcissistic institutions, universities possess an almost innate desire to be recognised as prestigious:

Every research university wants to improve its rank. Many higher education establishments with a primarily teaching mission feel the lack of rank. Faculty want to be associated with prestigious institutions. Students want to be selected by them. The desire to rise is universal.

(Marginson, 2013, 46)

The rapid expansion of the higher education (HE) environment during the twentieth century (Schofer & Meyer, 2005), with substantially increased demand for higher education, provided further fuel for the development and success of Higher Education Ranking Systems (HERS) (Altbach, 2006a; Dill & Soo, 2005) in which higher education systems and higher education institutions are measured according to their relative standing on a global scale, thus introducing the notion of competition among higher education institutions as a new paradigm in most countries (Altbach, 2006a). The impact of international rankings can hardly be overstated. This is because, irrespective of their scope, purpose or limitations, they are nonetheless viewed by many as relatively objective measures of institutional quality with the similarities in the rank order of universities in the different ranking systems only serving to further legitimise results (Ordorika & Lloyd, 2013).

HERS influence the judgements and decisions of many university leaders and faculty; prospective students and their parents; state policy makers and regulators; and industry and philanthropic investors (Wint and Downing, 2017; Hazelkorn, 2013; Altbach 2006b). It is often assumed that highly ranked institutions are more productive, have higher quality teaching and research, and contribute more to society than lower ranked institutions (Toutkoushian, Teichler, & Shin, 2011).

Therefore, HERS are regularly used as promotional material for universities, allowing them to compete internationally for sometimes scarce economic and human resources (Dill & Soo, 2005). Additionally, HERS are an important source of consumer intelligence about a selected ‘product’ on which people spend considerable amounts of time and money, and about which precious little other information is available (77?r Economist, 2018). Consequently, HERS have become established, albeit controversial, tools for assessing university excellence (Taylor & Braddock, 2007).


Globalisation has been forging change across all knowledge-intensive industries (Hazelkorn, 2013). Downing (2013) and Hazelkorn (2013) both argue that globalisation and evolution towards a single world market have led to an increased focus on higher education ranking systems. Knowledge-based societies are competing for talent and HERS are instrumental in achieving a competitive advantage. In a fast-moving global economy, knowledge is often seen as the ultimate source of competitive advantage (Ince, O’Leary, Quacquarelli, & Sowter, 2015) with the 18,000 plus universities worldwide now creating a highly competitive global environment for higher education (O’Loughlina, MacPhail, & Msetfi, 2013).

Evans et al. (2011) define globalisation as the spread of interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary life, from the cultural, to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual. In fact, globalisation is shaped by an increasingly integrated world economy, new information and communications technology', the emergence of an international knowledge network, the role of the English language, and other forces beyond the control of academic institutions (Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumb-ley, 2009). The growth in interconnectedness combines social, economic and cultural changes and this is matched by the increasing phenomenon of ranking systems which are now in place in more than 40 countries (Wint and Downing, 2017). The cross-border flow of ideas, students, faculty and financing, coupled with developments in information and communication technology', continue to constantly change the environment for higher education (Karkkainen & Lancrin, 2013).

The key' question is no longer whether globalisation is good or bad, since this question has been rendered irrelevant by reality, making it impossible to render higher education immune to the processes of globalisation (van Rooijen, 2014). Knight (2008) identifies five key elements of globalisation:

  • 1 The knowledge society: Increasing importance is attached to the production and use of knowledge as a wealth creator for nations.
  • 2 Information and communication technologies: New developments in information and communication technologies and systems.
  • 3 The market economy: Growth in the number and influence of market-based economies around the world.
  • 4 Trade liberalisation: New international and regional trade agreements develop to deerease barriers to trade.
  • 5 Changes in governance structures: The creation of new international governance structures and systems.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >