The influence of rankings and establishing world-class universities

The influence of rankings on the definition of what constitutes a world-class university' cannot be underestimated. Schmidt (2006) views rankings as a transnational policy discourse with national variants, emphasising contextual aspects of policy transfer. Many aspects of the university' are undoubtedly changing because of ranking participation, and many' of the critiques discussed earlier (Kehm, 2014; Hazelkorn, 2013; Espeland & Sauder, 2007) stem from the idea that universities participating in HERS are changing their nature and functioning in response to how they are perceived as a result of the rankings. HERS has clearly triggered a ‘reputation race’ amongst some higher education institutions, stimulating an array of stakeholders, particularly politicians, policy makers and university leaders to take decisions on a range of policy choices and major investments in higher education in their country' (Wint & Downing, 2017).

Two mechanisms of reactivity' are used to describe the effect of rankings on universities “Commensuration” and “Self-fulfilling Prophecies” (Espeland & Sauder, 2007). The former is described as “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). Commensuration prompts the redistribution of resources, the redefinition of work, and gaming (Espeland & Sauder, 2007, p. 33). “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies” include 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). For example, self-fulfilling prophecies are used when a specific rank is explicitly referenced in institutional or governmental policy (Locke, 2014). The setting of goals helps to set important benchmarks that can drive performance even in countries situated in protective environments (Wint & Downing, 2017). Both aspects (‘Commensuration’ and ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecies’) have been uncovered in universities and several higher education governing bodies (Yat Wai Lo, 2014; Locke, 2014; Hazelkorn, 2013).

Changes in institutional structure and culture

HERS can be viewed as a surveillance mechanism that creates an environment where pressures are sometimes explicit but often subtle. Universities are forced to pay attention to numerous details, producing statistics that become routine, thus internalising outside control (Espeland & Sauder, 2007). Furthermore rankings open universities up to be held accountable by various constituents (Espeland & Sauder, 2007). It includes a pressure for transparency and accountability regarding finances, particularly in the case of publicly funded institutions, public accounting of goals and results and government control over the performance of individual institutions or a system as a whole (Ordorika & Lloyd, 2013). Rauhvargers (2011) reports that universities benefit from rankings through improved data management practices such as improvements in student data, admissions information, annual university expenditures and infrastructure investments, improvement in campus facilities, student/staff exchange data, institutional income through commercialisation, staff information and internationalisation data.

Many universities have clearly adapted their internal structure and culture in response to rankings (Espeland & Sauder, 2015; Hazelkorn, 2013; Espeland & Sauder, 2007), employing institutional research units, strategies and university managers to analyse and benchmark their annual performance in rankings exercises (Spicer 2017; Yat Wai Lo, 2014). The European Universities Association (EUA) surveyed a number of EUA universities as part of their “Ranking in Institutional Strategies and Processes” (RISP) project and reported that 60% of the universities indicated that ranking plays a part in the strategic planning process of their institutions (Wint & Downing, 2017).

In some cases, universities have revised class sizes, departmental targets and merged some departments because university rankings systems reward low student/ staff ratios and research productivity (Hazelkorn, 2014). One of the most common reactions to rankings has been the drive to publish in journals which the HERS use to analyse research output and citations (Marope & Wells, 2013). Publishing in journals listed in the Elsevier-Scopus database, now used by QS and THE, is a significant contributor to success in rankings (Wint & Downing, 2017) and even though the database includes new journals with a focus on including journals in more languages, English remains the primary publishing language. Consequently, it negatively impacts on universities in non-English-speaking countries in the rankings (Altbach, Reisberg, & Rumbley, 2009). Some universities pay bonuses to academics for publishing in top tier journals in an attempt to fast-track improvement in global, regional and national rankings exercises (Wint & Downing, 2017).

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