Developing nations in the rankings discourse

The trend to create or enhance globally competitive (world-class) universities can be traced not only in developed countries but also in developing ones (Yudkevich, 2015; Sharma, 2015a; Marginson, 2013; Wang, Cheng, & Liu, 2013):

Universities must ensure they remain relevant in the rapidly changing world of global education whilst remaining highly competitive in the prevailing global economy and increasingly globalised job market.

(Wint & Downing, 2017, p. 232)

Many emerging nations set targets to assert themselves among world-class universities that are based on position in the global rankings (Yudkevich, 2015; Sharma, 2015a; Altbach & Salmi, 2011). Additionally, Marginson (2013) argues that the top universities in the world rarely use the term ‘World-Class University’ suggesting that the term is mostly used as an aspirational term by developing nations and is synonymous with high rank. Governments dedicate massive funding initiatives in the quest to establish world-class universities, including developing nations like Nigeria (mentioned earlier) which has made headlines with their 2/ 200/2020 initiative. These initiatives are predominantly, aimed to improve the research performance of a select number of institutions (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017; Hazelkorn & Ryan, 2013). As Hazelkorn and Gibson (2017) suggest the global knowledge economy seems to favour research over teaching. Even though rankings do not provide an empirically verifiable material basis for identifying ‘world-class’ institutions, as they are norm-referenced and not criterion referenced, they do indicate the relative achievements of institutions (Salmi & Altbach, 2011). As a result, there is a drive for uniformity' in policies and practices (Kehm 2014; Wang, Cheng, & Liu, 2013), creating a homogenising effect on institutions (Sadlak, 2010), as it fails to consider HEI’s contextual differences in missions and goals and challenges (Altbach et al., 2009).

Universities in developing countries face an abundance of difficulties when participating in HERS (Matthews, 2012). These institutions have to react to the demands of their society' with limited resources (Visser & Sienaert, 2013). As developing nations aim to improve access to tertiary' education and focus on teaching and support mechanisms to optimise student success (Matthews, 2012; Ndoye, 2008). This inevitably implies less freedom to pursue an open research agenda (Visser & Sienaert, 2013; Ndoye, 2008). Yudkevich (2015) warns that fixating on rankings may' mean that a university engages less with its local community and is less concerned with local needs. The national realities and development challenges of underdeveloped societies require differentiated higher education systems to serve the various educational purposes (Sadlak, 2010).

However, higher education institutions have to adapt to increased global and regional competition, to more diversity' and greater student mobility' of students and staff, particularly from Asia and the West (Sharma, 2015a). Institutions are also expected to rise to expectations from employers and from the public at a time of rapid technological change and unpredictable job futures (Sharma, 2015a). Should a university underperform in the rankings it might affect the public’s view of the institution which may result in an accumulation of negativity and generate public pressure (Espeland & Sauder, 2015; Salmi & Saroyan, 2007). This creates a mismatch in higher education priorities making them susceptible to the influences of the HERS (Ndoye, 2008). This can result in some universities reconsidering their missions to cope with immediate ranking pressure at the expense of longterm goals (Yudkevich, 2015).

Rankings affect universities in emerging and developing economies significantly but they are also a reality affecting the majority of universities with a strong regional focus. Hazelkorn and Altbach (2017) argue that mid-range national, regional and specialist universities, colleges, their stakeholders and governments should quit the rankings game, as the resources required or the substantial changes in mission or academic programmes necessary to make significant gains are not worth it. The overwhelming majority of universities should be focused on demographic demand, societal and economic requirements (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017).

Sheil (2010) suggests that it is futile for universities from developing countries and/or smaller nations to challenge the superior status of the world’s top universities. The research performance culture driven by rankings is expensive to maintain and the top institutions have considerable human and financial resources at their disposal as well as strengths in science, engineering and medicine which is less common for universities in developing nations (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017). Additionally, research suggests that participating in rankings result in more international collaboration at the expense of regional collaboration (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017; Wint & Downing, 2017).

Universities in poorer countries do not have the same financial freedoms which can lead to a reduction in financial support for students, increasing the effectiveness of educational delivery and altruistic initiatives like community engagement. Universities may be inclined to raise student fees to the detriment of prospective students and increasingly focus on third-stream income opportunities, furthering the marketisation of higher education. The internationalisation indicators used by rankings favour quantity over quality (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017). By going abroad, students and faculty members might weaken their local social networks which can be vital for ensuring access to jobs and/or new positions (Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017). Furthermore, research stars tend to get preferential treatment and higher salaries (Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017).

In contrast, Okebukola (2013) suggests that the competitive nature of rankings can inspire improved quality and research capacity in developing areas and Downing (2013) points out that ranking outcomes and criteria may serve as invaluable tools of self-reflection, benchmarking and information sources to aid strategic planning and foster regional collaboration (Downing, 2012). Furthermore, rankings may be beneficial in those countries where formal quality control measures are lacking, as rankings often serve in place of formal accreditation systems in countries where such accountability measures do not exist (IHEP, 2009).

Whilst there are numerous arguments against and for developing nations participating in rankings, many universities from developing regions nonetheless have a presence in the rankings along with smaller mid-range universities from developed nations. With the growing number of university rankings and their various subrankings not taking the same consensual approach as THE and QS, the decision to ‘participate’ is slowly being taken out of the universities’ hands. Therefore, even if some universities quit the THE and QS WUR, they will still be ranked on a global stage in many regional, subject and world rankings, including AR.WU which have increased the number of ranked institutions. Consequently, it is increasingly important for all institutions to be aware of the influence rankings have or may have on participating universities. Some influences do not stem from rank participation but can be attributed to the increasing globalised higher education landscape characterised by internationalisation, marketisation, managerialism and mass higher education which is supported by the world economy and facilitated by ICT technologies. For example, many governmental initiatives like China’s first initiative predates the HERS (Hazelkorn & Gibson, 2017). However, researchers and higher education experts suggest that the annual publication of rankings intensifies and/or alters some of these generic influences, whilst bringing about additional influences (Wint & Downing, 2017). As Espeland and Sauder (2007) suggested, influences are both subtle and direct. The most significant intensification of existing influences has to do with the homogenisation of higher education institutions to place research performance above teaching (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017; Hazelkorn & Ryan, 2013; Yat Wai Lo, 2014).

The ways universities have reacted to rankings has been described in earlier chapters together with the various reactions to the influence of rankings and HERS from overarching, aspirational goals to internal academic recruitment policies. Researchers have captured many of the influences HERS participation has had on universities from a system and institutional perspective. Additionally, they have contributed valuable insight into the interpersonal and inter-institutional effects of ranking on university management. Furthermore, universities function within their own regional and national economic and socio-political circumstances and higher education policies, which determine various amounts of governmental autonomy (Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017; Downing, 2012). These will mediate or inflame the universities’ aspirations to be internationally competitive (Altbach & Hazelkorn, 2017; Paasi, 2005).

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