The history and development of global rankings


In Chapter 2 the rich economic, technological and societal environment that provided a fertile milieu for the rapid development of global rankings was considered. This chapter highlighted the substantial transformations which have occurred in the global higher education landscape over the last few decades. These developments have had a profound impact upon Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Wint and Downing (2017) suggest that HEIs are primarily venues for human capital development, centres for new knowledge creation and dissemination and are in competition to deliver on these two roles, requiring them to develop, attract and retain ‘talents’ in order to produce future-ready graduates and ground-breaking research. Therefore, HEIs must remain relevant in a rapidly changing world which demands they remain highly competitive in the prevailing globalised economy and graduate job market. They are also often required to balance their desire to improve their global presence with their (often substantial) commitments to provide professional graduates for their locality' or region. This inevitably leads to a more ‘corporate’ approach to strategy and management than in previous decades. International ranking systems that compare HEIs across national boundaries not surprisingly exert considerable influence in this relatively new global environment. Taking this rich context as a starting point, Chapter 3 charts the development of international higher education rankings from their local origins in the United States and the United Kingdom to what are arguably now regarded as the Big Three of global rankings. These three ranking systems, those published by QS, Times Higher (THE) and the Shanghai Rankings Consultancy (ARWU) are generally accepted as the most read Higher Education Ranking Systems (HERS) globally (O’Leary, 2017).

The early origins of HERS

Higher Education Ranking Systems (HERS) seemingly appeared from nowhere onto the global scene in 2003 with the publication of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University' (Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, 2003). This was quickly followed in 2004 with the launch of the World University Rankings (WUR) with the data and rankings being largely produced by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and published by their media partners (at that time) The Times Higher Education Supplement. These rankings were loosely based on domestic rankings that had already been published in several countries, with the US News and World Report arguably considered the very first to publish a ranking of American universities in 1983.

However, rankings did not suddenly appear from nowhere in 2003. Whilst not actually ranking universities, the systematic comparison of higher education institutions against a selected set of criteria has a much longer history and can be traced back all the way back to 1870 when the US Bureau of Education published a classification of universities. O’Leary (2017), a former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement and a partner in the foundation of the QS/THE rankings in 2004, argues that modern HERS actually made their debut in August 1962 with the publication of what became the Norrington Table of Oxford University Colleges. These ‘rankings’ were named after Sir Arthur Norrington (President of Trinity College) who suggested a different scoring system from the one based entirely on the results of undergraduates in a letter to The Times in 1963. The table has appeared ever since and is now produced by the university itself after attempts to ban it led to inaccurate versions being put together by students and posted on college notice boards. As will be seen throughout this book, this was to be only the start of the history of controversy which continues to surround HERS.

Higher education ranking systems (HERS)

In 1983, a full two decades after the publication of the Norrington Table of Oxford University Colleges, the US News started what many argue to be the first HERS by ranking colleges (Hazelkorn, 2013). The first international rankings of universities (Academic Ranking of World Universities) were published in 2003 (Liu, 2013). Then in 2004 QS teamed up with media partners Times Higher in the United Kingdom to launch the QS/THE World University Rankings.

The mid-1990s saw a range of domestic rankings springing up in Europe and Asia with at least four UK national newspapers publishing university league tables, taking advantage of the wide range of statistical data published by the UK Government and universities. O’Leary (2017) also refers to an attempt at a European ranking when the French newspaper ‘Liberation’ published a supplement in 1989 which translated as ‘The 100 Best Universities in Europe’. Whilst it did not attempt a ranking of the best overall universities, it nonetheless listed the top five institutions in eleven subjects. The data on which this attempt at ranking was based was entirely reputational and ‘Liberation’ approached 2,500 academics, of which around 600 responded, who were asked to name the top five universities in their discipline. The sample of academics was rather too focused on the French and there were no Swiss or Scandinavian academics in the sample because their countries were not part of the Erasmus scheme which was used to contact respondents. Whilst these rankings were a decade ahead of their time in terms of international comparisons, they were hardly noticed outside of France given their

The history and development of global rankings 33 highly subjective methodology'. Since then, various commercial media and research institutions have released their rankings and ranking methodologies worldwide (Toutkoushian, et al., 2011). Today, there are more than 20 separate organisations compiling global rankings of universities (The Economist, 2018; Sowter, 2018) and this number seems set to continue to grow at an almost exponential rate.

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