Higher education ranking systems: The good, the bad and the ugly

Introduction

We have seen in earlier chapters how global HERS continue to increasingly contribute to consolidating the notion of a world university market (Marginson & van der Wende, 2007) and consequently they have found themselves in an ever-greater position of influence (Marginson, 2007a). Provided the mantra that “everyone wants a world-class university'” continues (Altbach, 2003) then global university' ranking systems “clearly are here to stay” (IHEP, 2007, p. 2) and “will continue to be published in ever-increasing numbers” (Bowden, 2000, p. 58). The manner in which rankings are treated by government departments and ministries charged with responsibility' for higher education in various countries suggests that whilst some use a global ranking system as an absolute benchmark for being ‘world class’, others seem to implement policies which totally ignore their potential negative impact on ranking success for their country’s universities. This book has focused on reviewing the history' and influence of the Big Three rankings systems, identifying the critical differences between them in terms of what they' purport to measure, criticisms of their methods and approach and the milieu in which HERS were born and have since thrived. This chapter returns to the ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ theme of Chapter 1 by summarising the good, the bad and the ugly' aspects of global ranking systems.

Higher education expansion and the influence of HERS

Earlier chapters have demonstrated how the massive expansion of higher education around the world in recent decades (Schofer & Mey'er, 2005) has undoubtedly' contributed to the impact of global HERS in countries and regions where they often exert significant influence on national agendas in both developing and highly' developed countries (Altbach, 2007). In some parts of the world, global university' rankings have clearly impacted upon almost every' aspect of the higher education enterprise including organisational mission, governance, strategic planning, personnel recruitment and public relations (Hazelkorn, 2007, 2008). At a national level, policymakers in many countries have prioritised building what is often termed a World-Class University' (WCU), something which they' believe will help their countries obtain superior positions in terms of the global competition for graduate talent. Governments in these countries increasingly provide substantial public investment in higher education and often develop strategies for expanding capacity.

As already indicated, at an institutional level many university Presidents and Vice-Chancellors greet the annual publication of the various global rankings with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, some referring to rankings as an unavoidable ‘poison’, potentially ‘fatal’ in terms of otherwise promising careers. They are often regarded as a wonderfully astute representation of a university’s standing when the university is rising in the rankings but as a criminally inaccurate set of completely non-representative criteria when you are heading in the other direction. In order to compete for a higher ranking in the global HERS, many University Presidents, Vice-Chancellors, high-level administrators and university institutional analysts around the world now devote considerable attention, resources and energy to achieving the status of World Class University. That status is now almost certainly defined by the position of the university in one or other of the Big Three HERS.

National rankings

National university ranking is not a new phenomenon. It has history in the US from 1870, when annual reports by the United States Bureau of Education rank-ordered universities based on statistical information. During the 1980s, U.S. News & World Report published university rankings, receiving increasing interest from a wide range of sources including university administrators, potential student and faculty applicants, policymakers and researchers (Meredith, 2004). In the UK, as early as the mid-1970s, the distinguished British sociologist A. H. Halsey conducted a survey of academics and constructed a rank of UK universities. Then in 1992, The Tinies published its top 100 UK universities in its Good University Guide for the first time. In Germany, the Center for Higher Education Development and German Academic Exchange Service (CHE/DAAD) has produced a ranking of Germany’s 250 higher education institutions since 1998. In Australia, the University of Melbourne’s Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research first published their International standing of Australian universities in 2004.

Despite these early forerunners, global university rankings remain relatively new and span no more than two or three decades. The earliest international (but not global) university ranking was ‘Asia’s best universities’, published by the magazine Asiaweek from 1997 to 2000. Whilst there are relatively few truly global rankings systems introduced to the world over the past decade, university rankings research has nonetheless become a new academic and professional discipline, with some students undertaking PhD theses on their many controversial aspects and potential influences. Generally, academics either review the notion of what constitutes a ‘world-class university’, explore the corresponding strategies undertaken by universities, or examine the impact of the quest for world-class status on higher education in different contexts (e.g.. Deem, Mok, & Lucas, 2008; Mok & Chan, 2008). Other academics focus on the ranking system itself, either by comparing the rankings (Aguillo, Bar-Ilan, Levene, & Ortega, 2010), rating the rankings

(Stolz, Hendel, & Horn, 2010; Taylor & Braddock, 2007) or engaging in a critique of the various ranking systems (Bookstein, Seidler, Fieder, & Winckler, 2010; Dehon, McCathie, & Verardi, 2010; Marginson, 2007b).

 
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