The Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings or ARWU

A compact definition of ranking is that it is an established approach, with corresponding methodology and procedures, for displaying the comparative standing of whole institutions or of certain domains of their performance (Sadlak, 2010). The majority of ‘rankings’ and all ‘league tables’ attempt to reflect the quality of institutions and/or study programmes in an ascendancy of the types and domains for which the listing is being done (Sadlak, 2010). The US News publication revealed valuable information about undergraduate programmes from various American higher education institutions (Marope & Wells, 2013). According to Marope & Wells (2013) the late 1990s ushered in several lists, league tables and rankings of American under- and post-graduate programmes. A decade later (2003) the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China published their Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) (Marope & Wells, 2013; Usher & Savino, 2006).

The publication started out in 2001 as a benchmarking project for Chinese universities. At that time China aspired to produce world class universities and, in order to do so, they had to establish a definition of a world class university, and benchmark the top Chinese universities against what they perceived as the best universities in the world (The Economist, 2018; Liu, 2013). The publication of the report resulted in numerous positive comments many of which invoked the possibility of undertaking a real ranking of world universities (Liu, 2013). Nobody expected it to be so popular (The Economist, 2018). Two years later, in early 2003, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) was completed (Liu, 2013; Usher & Savino 2006). These highly publicised rankings received lots of attention from mainstream media worldwide, and ARWU was considered to be the most influential international university ranking system at the time (Liu, 2013). After this first publication of a truly global ranking, the ‘knowledge economy’ began to emerge into global consciousness. Universities were no longer just sources of cultural pride but the engines of future prosperity, the generators of human capital, of ideas and of innovative companies (The Economist, 2018). This set the scene for the arrival of what would be a truly disruptive and transformative group of global ranking systems now collectively with ARWU often referred to as the Big Three.

The arrival of the Big Three

Since then the number of HERS has grown considerably, however the three biggest or most influential HERS are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE WUR), the Quacqarelli-Symonds World University Rankings (QS

WUR) and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) (The Economist 2018; Efimova & Avralev, 2013; Downing, 2012; Usher & Savino, 2006). Across the globe, these rankings began to grow until by 2017 more than 85 countries were covered in the QS WUR (Sowter, 2018) and more than 77 in the THE WUR (Times Higher Education, 2017).

According to Sadlak (2010) ranking is done for a variety of reasons, the most frequent being:

  • • to provide the public with information (whatever the specifics of the ranking format) on the standing of higher education institutions for individual or group decision-making (potential students, parents, politicians, foundations, funding agencies, research councils, employers, international organisations, etc.);
  • • to foster healthy competition among higher education institutions;
  • • to provide additional evidence about the performance of particular higher education institutions and/or study programmes; to stimulate the evolution of centres of excellence;
  • • and to provide an additional rationale for allocation of funds.

Hazelkorn (2013) argues that university rankings are only one way of comparing institutions. She distinguishes between ranking alternatives like specialist rankings systems and system level ranking systems which all seek to measure the quality, impact and benefit of the whole system. Inevitably, world ranking systems can only include a few world class universities, necessarily excluding the majority of higher education institutions (Rauhvargers, 2014; Hazelkorn, 2012). These exclusions are controversial in some countries where universities serve a more local population and have missions designed for their localities rather than to compete on a more global stage. Nonetheless, senior managers and (sometimes) governments expect their universities to perform well in the annual global ranking exercises. System level rankings aim to rank countries’ higher education ranking systems rather than focusing on the performance of individual institutions (Millot, 2015).

Quality Assurance and Evaluation is used to assess, monitor and audit academic standards and provide relevant information to key stakeholders about the quality of teaching and research. It is usually conducted at the whole-of-institution or sub-institutional level (Hazelkorn, 2012). Multi-dimensional rankings, such as the European Union’s (EU) U-Multirank, have a range of indicators which can be arranged according to individual preferences (Hazelkorn, 2012) but this ranking has not really captured the imagination of the universities or the media. Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) is a specific project developed by the OECD to measure the quality of teaching and learning in higher education using a test of generic and discipline-specific skills. AHELO measures student performance in both generic and discipline-specific skills (economics and engineering) and captures information on the contextual dimension through a specific questionnaire for institutions (Millot, 2015). AHELO is still in its infancy

Table 3.1 The inception of HERS from 2003-2017 (Ewalt, 2017; Universitas 21, 2017;

Worldtop20, 2017; Zha, 2016; Eduniversal Group, 2015; Rauhvargers, 2014;

Hazelkorn, 2013)

Ranking system and year of inception

Shanghai Rankings (ARWU)



Newsweek Top 100 Global Universities

Mines Paris Tech:


Eduniversal: Busi-

Professional Rank-

Ranking of Scien-

ness School

ing of World

tific Papers



World’s Best Colleges and Universities

RatER: Global

CWTS: Leiden


Universities ranking

University Rank-


THE World Uni-

QS World Uni-

High Impact

ing by Academic

versity Rankings

versity Rankings





Research Perfor-


UI GreenMetric World University Ranking


U 21: Ranking of National Higher Education Systems

Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR)

US News Best Global Universities Rankings (BGUR)

Reuters Top 100: The World’s Most Innovative


UniRanks: The Ranking of Rankings

QS Stars

Nature Index

Round University

Ranking (RUR)'

World Top 20

Project: Global



manee Index

but is likely to become a tool for comparability and benchmarking similar to the role played by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Hazelkorn, 2012).

There are also sub-institutional rankings, which compare one aspect or field, with similar aspects of other universities (Usher & Savino, 2006). These aspects are usually professional schools such as business, law and medicine (Hazelkorn, 2013). Organisations like the Economist, Financial Times, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal, frequently, publish rankings of graduate business schools (Usher & Savino, 2006). The U21 ranking provides a more thorough attempt to rank educational systems, and the greater China ranking, published for the first time during 2012, aims to assist students from the Chinese mainland choose their preferred institution. There are now several rankings that are primarily concerned with research; the Shanghai Ranking, Leiden Rankings, Scimago Rankings, University Rankings of Academic Performance (URAP), National Taiwan University Rankings and the US News and World Report Best Global Universities Rankings (BGUR). Additionally, there are also rankings that measure web activity, environmental sustainability, employability and innovation (Holmes, 2017). These topic-based ranking systems continue to enjoy huge interest from universities who can use them for marketing and branding purposes because media interest in them is growing. Maintaining and developing this media interest is critical for all the ranking agencies who depend upon this press coverage to maintain and develop public interest in their annual ranking results. This has also led to a variety of other ‘paid for’ products being offered to universities by some of the ranking agencies which are designed to provide detailed information about an individual university’s performance and ultimately assist the client institution to improve their ranking.

The following table illustrates the various international ranking systems and their dates of inception.

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