World university rankings: how much influence do they really have?
Grete Luxbacher, Tuesday 10 September 2013, 04.47 EDT
Global university rankings are a competitive business – not only for universities, but for the companies that research and publish them. They are simultaneously criticised and lauded. And while few can agree on which methodology is the most robust, there is consensus that global university rankings are here to stay, that no ranking is all encompassing and that their influence is growing. Students, universities and governments are taking note and action.
The first international rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities or Shanghai Rankings, were published in 2003 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. These were initially used to establish the standing of Chinese universities internationally following the launch of a government initiative to create world-class universities.
But in today’s more internationalised sector, governments across the world are using rankings to measure their global competitiveness. The Shanghai Rankings were soon followed by the QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. With students and academics facing greater options and opportunities, the existence of three ready-made lists of the world’s best universities have heightened competition the world over and governments are now paying closer attention, even utilising rankings to make policy decisions.
Education has become a top priority in emerging economies and many are looking to form partnerships with world leading universities. The Brazilian government’s national scholarship programme, Science Without Borders, aims to send 100,000 students and researchers in primarily STEM subject areas to some of the world’s best institutions. These partner universities were selected based on their position in the QS and Times rankings. In an effort to ensure quality, India’s University Grants Commission also requires any foreign university wanting to partner with Indian universities to be ranked among the top 500 in the world.
University rankings are also impacting immigration policy. With the number of internationally mobile students projected to grow due to changing demographics and rising incomes in developing countries, overseas students are big business. They contributed over £10bn to the UK economy in 2011-2012 alone. As a result the UK government is looking to attract 90,000 more overseas students by 2018.
However, the current debate surrounding UK immigration policy has led to an increasingly negative perception among overseas students, making them feel ‘unwelcome’. This has led to a sharp decline in the number of Indian and Pakistani students studying in the UK. Immigration policy is also impacting the recruitment of top academics and researchers. France has capitalised on this and opened its borders to Indian students by easing visa restrictions.
Other countries looking to improve their standings in the rankings have also opened their borders. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have changed their immigration laws to favour those who have graduated from top global universities. In points based systems, graduates from the highest ranked universities in the QS, Times and Shanghai Rankings are awarded more points.
In a bid to make itself more attractive to international academics and expatriates, Russian authorities recently instituted a new legislation that will recognise degrees from foreign universities that are among the top 300 inthese rankings. However, those students who have not graduated from top universities or from former Soviet republics (excluding Uzbekistan) will still need to undergo a lengthy certification process.
This development is in line with other initiatives the Russian government is introducing to improve its global competitiveness, such as sending more students abroad to study at elite universities. Russia is also taking steps to overhaul its own higher education sector as a result of its poor performance in the global university rankings. Following an independent audit of its universities, 15 were selected to receive special grants to improve their compliance with rankings criteria.
Other countries such as Germany, France, Japan and Singapore have introduced similar programmes to improve their higher education systems and build world-class universities. In Asia in particular, the university rankings have created a ‘reputation race’, which sees both universities and governments closely monitoring the changing criteria for university rankings.
Making policy decisions based on university rankings is not a simple process. Global university rankings have their limitations. The indicators and criteria used are not all encompassing and often measured via proxies. There is a greater overall emphasis on research than teaching, despite the context of rising tuition fees, when prospective students are looking for the complete package. This emphasis also puts universities that are more focused on the arts and humanities at a disadvantage due to the heavy weighting of citations to measure research influence.
Much of the controversy surrounding the university rankings concerns their methodologies and which is the most robust – or, conversely, most gameable. There are various shortcuts universities can take to improve their scores such as taking on part-time professors that are highly cited.
Ultimately, university rankings are a tool. When using a particular ranking, it is important to be aware of its limitations as well as its intended audience. While QS design their rankings primarily for students, other rankings are aimed more overtly at university leadership. Any list only highlights a small percentage of the world’s universities and as a result, many institutions, particularly in developing countries, are at a distinct disadvantage.
Like them or loathe them, however, university rankings seem to be here to stay. In Asia and Latin America, companies have begun to produce regional rankings. And with US president Barack Obama planning to create his own own ‘Obamarank’ league table of US universities in an attempt to nudge down the cost of college education, the global interest in ranking higher education only looks set to grow.