(2013) ‘World-Class Universities or World-Class Systems: Rankings and Higher Education Policy
Choices’, in E. Hazelkorn; P. Wells and M. Marope (Eds.), Rankings and Accountability in Higher
Education: Uses and Misuses, UNESCO, Paris, Forthcoming.
World-Class Universities or World-Class Systems? Rankings and Higher
Education Policy Choices
In today’s world, it has become all too familiar for policymakers and higher education
leaders to identify and define their ambitions and strategies in terms of a favourable
global ranking for their universities/university. But, is it always a good thing for a
university to rise up the rankings and break into the top 100? How much do we really
know and understand about rankings and what they measure? Do rankings raise
standards by encouraging competition or do they undermine the broader mission of
universities to provide education? Can rankings measure the quality of higher
education? Should students use rankings to help them choose where to study? Should
rankings be used to help decide education policies and the allocation of scarce
resources? Are rankings an appropriate guide for employers to use when recruiting new
employees? Should higher education policies aim to develop world-class universities or
to make the system world-class?
This chapter discusses the rising attention accorded to global rankings and their
implications for higher education. It is divided into five parts. Part one explores the
growing importance accorded to rankings; part two discusses what rankings measure;
part three asks whether rankings measure what counts; and part four reflects on how
the use and abuse of rankings are influencing policy choices. Finally, part five addresses
a key policy question: should governments focus on building the capacity of a few
world-class universities or on the capacity of the higher education system-as-whole, in
other words, building a world-class higher education system?
Growing Attention to Rankings
It is a common saying, but nonetheless true, that higher education is changing rapidly.
There are probably four main drivers:
First, is the rapid creation of new knowledge creation and its application which
have become a foundation for individual and social prosperity, be it cultural or
economic. People who complete a high-school education tend to enjoy better health
and quality of life than those who finish at the minimum leaving age. Those completing
a university degree can look forward to a significantly greater gross earnings premium
over his/her lifetime compared with someone who only completes secondary school.
Graduates are also more likely to be engaged with their community and participate in
civil society. Successful societies are those with the capacity to ensure its citizens have
the knowledge and skills to contribute to society throughout their lives, and that new
knowledge can be developed and exploited for competitive and public advantage.
Because higher education institutions (HEIs) are the principal base for human capital
development, and new knowledge creation and dissemination, investment and
performance matters. For all these reasons, higher education is now at the centre of
Second, the capacity to participate in “world science” depends on the ability of
countries to develop, attract and retain talent. But many countries face demographic
pressures. While the world population is increasing, the population of more developed
regions is dependent on net migration with a converse impact on the developing world.
Despite global population growth, the availability of skilled labour is actually declining. In
2005, young people represented 13.7 percent of the population in developed countries
but their share is expected to fall to 10.5 percent by 2050 (Bremner et al., 2009, 2, 6).
Together, these demographic dynamics presents a major challenge for all national
strategies based on growing knowledge-intensive industries. In response, governments
around the world are introducing policies to attract the most talented migrants and
internationally mobile students, especially postgraduate students in science and
Third, because higher education is considered an essential component of the
productive economy, how higher education is governed and managed has become a
major policy issue. The quality of individual higher education institutions (HEI) and the
system-as-a-whole, e.g. teaching and learning excellence, research and knowledge
creation, commercialisation and knowledge transfer, graduate employability and
academic productivity, provide a good indication of a country’s ability to compete
successfully in the global economy. Accordingly, the trend for greater transparency and
accountability has been supplemented by an increasing need to demonstrate value-for-
money and (public) investor confidence.
Fourth, students (and their parents) have become very savvy consumers,
especially as evidence continues to show that graduate outcomes and lifestyle are
strongly correlated with education qualifications and career opportunities. Students are
now much more focused on employability as opposed to employment. They assess their
choice of an institution and education programmes as an opportunity-cost – balancing
the cost of tuition fee and/or cost-of-living and the career and salary opportunities. As
the traditional student market declines, competition for high achieving students is rising.
The balance of consumer power is shifting in favour of discerning talented students.
In this environment, the arrival of higher education rankings is not surprising. They may
beperceived as being an independent assessment of individual institutions, meeting
wider policy goals for greater transparency and accountability, and assessing value-for-
money and return-on-investment. Rankings are seen to provide a clue, for a wide range
of stakeholders, about the quality of the educational product. For students, they indicate
the potential monetary or private benefits that university attainment might provide vis-
à-vis future occupation and salary premium; for employers, they signal what can be
expected from the graduates of a particular HEI; for government and policymakers they
can suggest the level of quality and international standards, and their impact on national
economic capacity and capability; and for HEIs they provide a means to benchmark their
own performance. For the public, rankings provide valuable information about the
performance and productivity of HEIs in a simple and easily understood way.
National rankings have existed in many countries, most notably the United States for
decades. Since 2003, with the publication of the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of
World Universities (ARWU), global rankings have become very popular. Knowledge about
and use of rankings has continued apace in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial
Crisis (GFC), reflecting the realization that in a global knowledge economy, national pre-
eminence is no longer enough. Today, rankings exist in every part of the world. There are
10 global rankings – albeit some are more popular than others (see Box 1). Over 60
countries have introduced national rankings especially in emerging economies
(Hazelkorn, 2012b), and there are a number of regional, specialist and professional
rankings. While undergraduate, domestic students and their parents were the initial
target audience for rankings, today, they are used by a myriad of stakeholders, e.g.
governments and policymakers; employers and industrial partners; sponsors,
philanthropists and private investors; academic partners and academic organisations;
the media and public opinion. Postgraduate students, especially those seeking to pursue
a qualification in another country, are the most common target audience and user.
Box 1: Main Global Rankings
Academic Ranking of World Universities [ARWU](Shanghai Jiao Tong University),
Webometrics (Spanish National Research Council), 2003;
World University Ranking (Times Higher Education/Quacquarelli Symonds), 2004-
Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers for Research Universities (HEEACT),
Leiden Ranking (Centre for Science & Technology Studies, University of Leiden),
World's Best Colleges and Universities (US News and World Report), 2008;
SCImago Institutional Rankings, 2009;
Global University Rankings, RatER (Rating of Educational Resources, Russia),
Top University Rankings (Quacquarelli Symonds), 2010;
World University Ranking (Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters [THE-TR]),
U-Multirank (European Commission) 2011.
Note. Date indicates date of origin.
What do Rankings Measure?
Rankings compare different HEIs using a range of indicators to measure different aspects
of higher education (see Part I of this book). The choice of indicators is decided by the
promoters of each system, with each indicator acting as a proxy for the real object. This
is because there is often no direct measurement; for example, there is no agreed way to
measure the quality of teaching and learning. Each indicator is considered independently
from each other, while in reality there is an interactive element to them or at least
collinearity; for example, older well-endowed private universities are more likely to have
better faculty/student ratios and per student expenditure compared with newer public
institutions or institutions in developing countries. Each indicator is also assigned a
weight or percentage of the total score, with research usually assigned the highest
weight. A final score is aggregated to a single digit and ranked sequentially. Rankings
usually concentrate on whole institutions, although there is an increasing focus on sub-
institutional rankings at the field of science level (e.g. natural science, mathematics,
engineering, computer science, social sciences) or by discipline or profession (e.g.
business, law, medicine, graduate schools, etc.).
Regardless of ranking system, there has been considerable criticism of the methodology,
the choice of indicators and weightings, the quality of the data and its reliability as an
international or institutional comparator of performance, and whether it is possible to
measure and compare complex and diverse HEIs possessing different missions and
contexts (cf. Dill and Soo, 2005; Usher and Savino, 2006; Usher and Savino, 2007;
Sadlak and Liu, 2007a; Saisana and D’Hombres 2008; Usher and Medow, 2009;
Rauhvargers, 2011). Over the years, and in response to commentary and analysis,
various changes to the methodology have been made but the overarching criticisms
Rankings use information from four main sources: independent third party, such as
government databases; bibliometric and citation data gathered through proprietary,
electronic or web-based sources; institutional data; and student, peer, employer or
other stakeholder surveys. The absence of internationally meaningful and available data
continues to present a considerable problem for any reliable comparisons. Similarly, the
lack of consistency in data definition, sets, collection, and reporting makes it difficult to
make simple and easy comparisons across jurisdictions and between different rankings.
National rankings are usually able to capture data across a wide range of dimensions
while global rankings are inevitably more narrowly proscribed. Peer or stakeholder
surveys were issued in only a few languages until recently; THE-TR have now expanded
to nine languages. Webometrics measures the size and quality of university internet
presence, but this can disadvantage developing countries with poor internet
connectivity (Ortega, 2009).
The data sources are also susceptible to bias, self-perpetuating views of quality, and
allegations of “gaming” – or manipulating the data in order to influence the outcome. To
get around these problems, measurements usually consist of proxies. For example,
research data is used to measure of academic quality; student entry levels or student
selectivity gauge institutional selectivity; faculty/student ratio measure educational
quality; and an institution’s budget measures the quality of the infrastructure, e.g. the
buildings and laboratories. In addition, different rankings assign different weightings to
the indicators, and thus a HEI’s position can change considerably depending upon the
weight ascribed to the particular criteria. Aggregating the scores into a final rank ignores
the fact that some institutions might score higher in some domain than others, or vice
versa. This can lead to inconsistency across different rankings but it also highlights the
arbitrariness of the weightings.
Rankings focus disproportionately on research. This is due to the fact that research data
is widely available but more importantly it reflects a view that research is the most
important indicator of higher education quality. Research is assessed on the basis of
bibliometric and citation data usually provided by Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science or
Elsevier’s Scopus. However, this data is most accurate only for bio- and medical sciences
research; it is less reliable for the arts, humanities and social science disciplines. By
focusing on research output as the primary measure of higher education quality and
productivity, rankings ignore the full breadth of higher education activity, such as:
teaching and learning, the quality of the student experience or the “added value” a HEI
contributes to a student’s learning over-and-beyond the student’s entry level. No
attention is given to the social and economic impact of knowledge and technology
transfer, or the contribution of regional or civic engagement or “third mission” activities
to communities and student learning outcomes – despite these aspects being a major
policy objective for many governments and the mission focus for many HEIs.
Nonetheless, research accounts of 100% of the marks of the ARWU compared with
62.5% for THE-TR and 20% for QS. ARWU also collects information on publications in
Nature or Science, albeit it’s not clear why these two journals have been singled out for
such attention. Table 1 below provides a simple comparison of what rankings measure
and what they do not measure.
Table 1. What Rankings Measure
Rankings Do Not Measure
• Bio- and medical sciences
• Publications in Nature and Science
• Student and Faculty
Characteristics (e.g. productivity, entry
criteria, faculty/student ratio)
• Reputation – amongst peers,
• Teaching and Learning, incl. “added
value”, impact of research on teaching
• Arts, Humanities and Social
• Technology/Knowledge Transfer or
Impact and Benefit of Research
• Regional or Civic Engagement
• Student Experience
Despite the huge diversity in national context and institutional missions, existing
rankings compare complex HEIs using a common set of indicators. Nonetheless, the
results of major global rankings are often similar; according to Usher and Medow (2009,
p. 13), this commonality arises from the fact that rankings measure socio-economic
advantage, and the benefits of age, size and money which help large institutions and
countries. They attach greatest importance to HEIs which are roughly 200 years old with
approximately 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty, and an annual budget of around €2bn
plus considerable endowment earnings (Usher, 2006; Sadlak and Liu, 2007b). These HEIs
operate highly selective entry criteria for students and faculty. Accordingly, they have
been able to amass significant competitive advantage. Of the world’s more than 16,000
HEIs, research performance is concentrated in the top 500 and is virtually undetectable
(on that index) beyond 2,000. Because age and size matters, there is a super-league of
approximately 25 universities, usually with medical schools and in English-language
countries, which tend to dominate the top strata of all rankings (Sheil, 2009).
There are over 16,000 HEIs worldwide, according to the International Association of
Universities (IAU). However, rankings generally publish data for only a fraction of this
number with some exceptions, e.g. QS publishes data for 700, and Webometrics for over
2000 HEIs. Nonetheless, statements by politicians and policy-makers, university leaders,
other HE stakeholder, and the media regularly focus on the achievements of the top 100.
This represents less than 1 percent of the world’s higher education institutions!
Do Rankings Measure What Counts?
Considerable attention has been given to commenting on what rankings measure and
identifying methodological flaws. However, the key question is: do rankings measure
what counts or, to paraphrase Einstein, do they simply count what is easily measured?
Because rankings, like other performance indicators, can incentivise opinions, decisions
and behaviour, it is important to understand more fully what is measured and the
possible perverse incentives or unintended consequences that can be encouraged by
their usage (cf. Martin and Sauvageot, 2011). The following discussion briefly examines
six different dimensions (see Table 2; fuller discussion in Hazelkorn, 2011a, chap. 2).
Table 2. Summary of Advantages and Disadvantages of Commonly Used
• Strong correlation between
academic tests and future
achievement, especially for
literacy and mathematics;
• No statistically significant
relationship between “leaning
and cognitive growth” and
• Assesses “commitment to
• Smaller ratio creates a better
• Quality depends on interaction
of many factors, e.g. faculty,
pedagogy, laboratories and
• Correlation between budget
and quality of learning
choice and services
• No correlation direct between
budget and usage, or between
value, cost and efficiency
• Used to understand quality
of learning environment
• Useful to help improve
performance but difficult to use
for comparisons or ranking
• Completion, graduation and
educational success and
• Links education with careers,
salaries and lifestyle
• Lower socio-economic and
groups or mature students can
have different study patterns
• Employability and salary are
linked to market forces
• Measures research and
scholarly activity, impact and
• Bibliometric and citation
practices are inaccurate
measures of research activity
• Value and regard as
measured by academic
peers or key stakeholders
• Subject to rater bias, halo
effect and “gaming”
Source: Adapted Hazelkorn, 2011a, 60.
Measuring Student Entry
Many national rankings, such as the US News and World Report Best College rankings
(USN&WR), measure student entry levels on the basis that high entry scores are a proxy
for academic quality. This is based on the view that student grades can be used to
predict future achievement, and hence, more high-achieving students equate with
higher quality. But as Hawkins (2008) says, “many colleges recruit great students and
then graduate great students [but is] that because of the institution, or the students?”
International evidence repeatedly shows that student learning outcomes are
attributable to many factors which influence prior learning. Kuh and Pascarella (2004,
56) warn that failure to control for student pre-college characteristics can lead to the
conclusion that differences in reported student experiences are institutional effects
when, in fact, they may simply be the result of differences in the characteristics of the
students enrolled at the different institutions. The US National Study of Student Learning
(NSSL) and National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) “found no statistically
significant relationship between effective teaching practices and admissions
selectivity….” (Carey, 2006a) To get a more accurate picture of the quality of teaching
and learning, it would be better to assess “value added” – in other words, what an
institution has contributed to a student’s knowledge and skills rather than measuring
students at entry. Ultimately, entry scores simply reflect socio-economic advantage.
1. Measuring Faculty/Student Ratio
Because measuring the quality of teaching and learning is highly complex, rankings such
as the THE-QS, QS and U-Multirank use faculty/student ratio as a proxy for teaching
quality. A smaller ratio is viewed as equivalent to better teaching on the basis that small
classes create the optimum learning environment. This is an issue of discussion at
primary and secondary level, but even here the OECD (2010, 72) has warned that:
“While smaller classes are often perceived as enabling a higher quality of education,
evidence on the impact of class size on student performance is mixed.” Education
quality is influenced by the whole learning environment; for example, the balance
across the quality of the academics, seminars, laboratories, tutorials, etc. and different
pedagogical formats and learning resources. If a university
hired full-time lecturers, at lower salaries, to do more of its
undergraduate teaching and devoted the resources that it saved from
doing so to increasing the average salaries of its tenure-track faculty
would...its students be disadvantaged by having a smaller share of their
classes taught by tenure and tenure-track faculty? (Ehrenberg, 2005, 32)
Faculty/staff ratio also has very different meanings for public and private institutions
and systems, and may say more about the funding or efficiency level. Class size in and of
itself can be a hollow indicator especially when used to measure the learning
environment for high achieving students. Ultimately, the simplicity of the indicator does
not tell us very much about what affect the faculty/student ratio has on actual teaching
quality or the student experience (Brittingham, 2011).
2. Measuring Resources
The level of expenditure or resources is often used as a proxy for the quality of the
learning environment. This is captured, inter alia, by the total amount of the HEI budget
or by the size of the library collection. USN&WR says that “generous per-student
spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services” (US
News Staff, 2010); this is sometimes interpreted as expenditure per student. For
example, Aghion et al. (2007) argue there is a strong positive correlation between the
university budget per student and its research performance as demonstrated in the
ARWU ranking. However, many HEIs are competing on the basis of substantial resources
spent on dormitories, sports and leisure facilities, etc.; it is not clear what impact these
developments – worthy as they are – have on the actual quality of the educational or
learning experience. This approach can also penalize “institutions that attempt to hold
down their expenditures” (Ehrenberg, 2005, 33) and it provides “little or no information
about how often and how beneficially students use these resources” (Webster, 1986,
152). For example, because the costs associated with building a new library for a
developing country or new HEI can be very significant (Oni, 2010), many institutions
have switched to electronic access or sharing resources with neighbouring institutions.
There is a danger that looking simply at the budget ignores the question of value vs. cost
vs. efficiency (Badescu, 2010), and that the indicator is essentially a measure of wealth
(Carey, 2006b). Indeed, while many policy observers look to the US, “if value for money
is the most important consideration, especially in an age of austerity, the American
model might well be the last one... [to] be emulating” (Hotson, 2011).
3. Measuring Education Outputs
In recent years, performance and quality assessment have shifted from focusing on input
factors to looking at outputs and outcomes. Rather than simply comparing the number
of students in a particular HEI or the number of students entering the first year of a
programme, emphasis has turned increasingly to looking at successful completion or
graduation rates, as determined by the appropriate time-frame, e.g. a BA degree is
usually completed in three/four years, a Master in one/two years, and a PhD in
three/four years. Employability is also a focus of increasing attention. There is little
doubt these are critical issues, as it places a responsibility on HEIs to ensure that
students successfully complete their programme of study within a reasonable timeframe
and can find sustainable employment afterwards.
But as mentioned above, educational performance is influenced by myriad factors. This
method may be disadvantageous to lower socio-economic and ethnically disadvantaged
groups or mature students whose life or family circumstances disturb normal study
patterns. These students often take longer to complete as they may need to work to
supplement their income or look after family or domestic matters. While HEIs which
seek to serve this particular student cohort can become dis-incentivised by such
indicators (Jones, 2009), institutions which serve a large number of wealthy students can
win the numbers game when graduation and retention rates are reported as averages
among the entire student body. Employability can be a reflection of wider economic
factors, and not necessarily a measure of educational quality. The US National Governors
Association Centre for Best Practice has cautioned against relying upon methodologies
which can inadvertently “exclude far too many students and track too few student
The most commonly used measure for public higher education funding
formulas is total student enrolment. This measure creates no incentive to
see students through to completion….Alternatively, strict graduation rate
formulas can penalize schools that serve disadvantaged students because
these schools will inevitably have lower graduation rates. Moreover, a
singular emphasis on graduation can discourage open-enrolment policies,
because skimming top students will improve institutional performance
despite excluding students who may benefit most from postsecondary
education. Graduation rate funding formulas may also pressure schools to
lower their graduation standards if they are desperate for funds and are
not meeting graduation targets (Limm, 2009).
4. Measuring Research
Counting academic publications and citations is the most common method to assess
academic work; the former measures productivity and the latter measures quality.
Rankings rely heavily upon Thomson Reuters and Scopus, which collect publication and
citation data for approximately 9,000 journal articles in Web of Science and 18,000 in
Scopus, respectively. The main beneficiaries of this practice are the bio- and medical
sciences because these disciplines publish frequently with multiple authors. In contrast,
the social sciences and humanities usually have single authors and publish in a wide
range of formats (e.g. monographs, policy reports, translations, and so on), whereas the
arts produce major art works, compositions, and media productions, and engineering
produces conference proceedings and prototypes. These latter outputs, in addition to
electronic formats or open source publications, are ignored by traditional bibliometric
Bibliometric practices also disproportionately reward research which is published in
English language international peer-reviewed journals. Although English is the lingua-
franca of business and the academy, it can be an inhibitor. English-language articles and
countries, which publish the largest number of English-language journals, tend to benefit
the most. It also disadvantages the social sciences and humanities which often consider
issues of national relevance and publish in the national language but can equally affect
the sciences, e.g. environmental or agricultural science, for similar reasons.
Disparity across disciplines and world regions is further reflected in citation practices.
Authors are most likely to reference other authors whom they know or who are from
their own country. Given an intrinsic tendency to reference national colleagues or
English-language publications, the reputational or halo factor means certain authors are
more likely to be quoted than others. Altbach (2006) claims non-English language
research is published and cited less often because researchers from US universities tend
to cite colleagues they know. It is also easier says Altbach (2012, 29; also Jones, 2011)
“for native English speakers to get access to the top journals and publishers and to join
the informal networks that establish the pecking order in most scientific disciplines”.
This may occur because of the significance of their work or because of informal
networks. This can affect reputational surveys which have become the chosen
methodology of both the new QS and THE-TR rankings, which assign 50% and 33%,
respectively; THE-TR also publishes a reputation ranking. Because detailed familiarity
with an country or institution may in reality be imperfect, peer reviewers “tend to rank
high those departments of the same type, and with the same emphases, as their own
universities” (Webster, 2001, p. 44) or those with whom they are most familiar
(Hazelkorn, 2011a, 74-77). The pool of peers has tended to be disproportionately
weighted in favour of Anglophone countries (Baty, 2010d); while changes have been
made to the peer selection process, participation levels remains limited (Usher, 2012).
There are other more consequential problems that arise from this method. By focusing
only on peer-reviewed articles in particular journals, it assumes that journal quality is
equivalent to article quality. Articles may be quoted because of errors not necessarily
because of a break-through. This has led to the controversial practice of ranking
academic journals (Hazelkorn, 2011b). Peer review, which is the cornerstone of
academic practice, can also be a conservative influence; new research fields,
interdisciplinary research or ideas which challenge orthodoxy can find it difficult to get
published or be published in high impact journals.
Furthermore, using citations to measure “impact” suggests that its relevance and
benefit is simply a phenomenon of the academy thereby ignoring the wider social and
economic value and benefit of publicly-funded research and innovation. In so doing, the
full spectrum from knowledge creation to technology and knowledge transfer and
exchange – across all disciplines – is ignored. Furthermore, depending on the research
project or the discipline, research findings and analysis may be published in a wide
variety of formats or as prototypes, and its impact and benefit felt far beyond the
academy. Table 3 shows what is measured above the red line by traditional bibliometric
and citations practice, and what is ignored below the red line.
Table 3. Indicative List of Research Output and Impact
5. Measuring Reputation
To assess how prominent stakeholders view individual HEIs, rankings often use
reputational surveys of academic peers, students or industry stakeholders. They usually
ask respondents to identify the best universities either from memory or from a pre-
selected list. This method has led to the opinion that reputational surveys are prone to
being subjective, self-referential, and self-perpetuating (Rauhvargers, 2011, 65). They
benefit older institutions in developed countries and global cities with which there is an
easy identification. Peer judgements may “say little or nothing about the quality of
instruction, the degree of civility or humaneness, the degree to which scholarly
excitement is nurtured by student-faculty interaction, and so on” (Lawrence and Green,
1980, 13). Over-estimation of a university “may be related to good performance in the
past, whereas underestimation may be a problem for new institutions without long
traditions” (Becher and Trowler, 2001). Van Raan (2007, 95) similarly acknowledges that
Institutions with established reputations are strong in maintaining their
position, for they simply have the best possibilities to attract the best
people, and this mechanism provides these renowned institutions with a
cumulative advantage to further reinforce their research performance.
The real question is: can university Presidents or any other stakeholders know
sufficiently about a wide range of other institutions, around the world, in order to score
them fairly? In other words, rankings are a self-replicating mechanism which reinforces
the position of universities already known rather than those which are excellent.
In summary, there is no such thing as an objective ranking. The choice of indicators and
weightings assigned to them reflect the value-judgements or priorities of the different
ranking organisations. More importantly, the measurements are rarely direct but consist
of proxies either because the issue is very complex or there is no available data. Hence,
the evidence is never self-evident and does not reflect an incontestable truth. Rather,
rankings measure what is easy and predictable, and concentrate on past performance
which benefits older HEIs at the expense of new institutions. Quantification is used as a
proxy for quality. Given all these shortcomings, it should not be surprising that rankings
do not unreservedly measure the quality of education.
Since the arrival of global rankings, it is not uncommon for governments to gauge
national global competitiveness and positioning within the world-order in terms of the
rank of their universities, or to attribute national ambitions to a position in the rankings.
The ongoing global economic crisis has further highlighted the importance of “academic
capital” and investment as critical indicators of competitiveness and global success.
These developments have sparked a debate about the need for higher education reform.
Because the price tag for achieving world-class status is so high, many governments and
HEIs are questioning their commitment to mass higher education as funding comes
under strain; others are concerned their universities may not be elite or selective
We want the best universities in the world....How many universities do
we have? 83? We're not going to divide the money by 83 (Nicolas
Sarkozy, President, France, 2009).
The Higher Education Endowment Fund...[will] support the emergence
of world-class institutions;...We are trying to leapfrog universities
above the norm (Julie Bishop, Federal Education, Science and Training
Minister, Australia, 2007).
Work [is underway] on establishing the country's first "research-
intensive" university... universities which earned a place in the top 500
rankings...were entitled to financial support (Jurin Laksanavisit,
Education Minister, Thailand, 2009).
The price tag to get one Nigerian university into the global top 200 is
put at NGN 5.7 billion [€31m] annually for at least ten years (National
Universities Commission, Nigeria).
Many governments have embarked on significant restructuring of their higher education
and research systems.
The world-class university has become the panacea for ensuring success in the global
economy, based on the characteristics of the top 20, 50 or 100 globally-ranked
universities. France, Germany, Russia, Spain, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia,
Finland, India, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Latvia – among many other countries –
have launched initiatives to create world-class universities. Individual US states (e.g.
Texas and Kentucky) have similarly sought to build or boost flagship universities,
elevating them to what is known as Tier One status, a reference to USN&WR College
Rankings. In contrast, countries such as Ireland, Australia, and Norway are emphasizing
the importance of the system being “world class”.
There are two basic policy models.
1. The Neo-liberal Model seeks to concentrate resources in a small number of elite
or world class universities. This is often referred to as the “Harvard-here” model because
it aims to replicate the experience of Harvard University or the Ivy League (see Figure 1).
This is to be achieved by encouraging greater vertical or hierarchical (reputational)
differentiation between HEIs, with greater distinction between research (elite)
universities and teaching (mass) HEIs. Resource allocation may be linked to institutional
profiling or other classification tools informed by rankings.
Figure 1: The “Harvard here” model
Source: Gavin Moodie, correspondence 7 June 2009
2. The Social-democratic Model seeks to balance excellence and equity by
supporting the development of a world class system of higher education across a
country. This is to be achieved by strengthening horizontal (mission or functional)
differentiation across a diverse portfolio of high performing HEIs, some of which may be
globally or regionally focused. Emphasis is on supporting “excellence” wherever it occurs
by encouraging HEIs to each specialise in specific disciplines or knowledge domain
according to their expertise, competence, demand and/or mission (see Figure 2). There
is a strong emphasis on a close correlation between teaching and research, and
knowledge production, commercialisation and dissemination as components of an
integrated process. Institutional compacts or strategic dialogues may be used as a policy
tool to enforce mission specialisation and differentiation.
Figure 2: Field or Mission Specialisation model
Source: Gavin Moodie, correspondence 7 June 2009
Rankings have also had an influence on other aspects of government policy. Some
governments, such as Romania, Jordan, Macedonia and the Czech Republic, are using
rankings to help assess and/or classify HEIs within their own countries. Article 159 of the
Macedonia Law on Higher Education (2008) grants automatic recognition to graduates of
the top 500 THE-QS, ARWU or USNWR rankings without going through a more complex
recognition process. Brazil, Chile, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and
Qatar, to name a few, restrict government scholarships for international study to
students admitted to top ranking universities (Salmi & Saroyan 2007); Singapore’s
Foreign Specialist Institute has similar criteria for institutional collaboration. Dutch
(2008) and Danish (2011) immigration laws grant special recognition to foreigners from
top universities (150, and 20 respectively). And finally, several US states benchmark
academic salaries (Florida and Arizona) or “fold-in” rankings into performance
measurement system (Minnesota, Indiana and Texas).
World-class Universities or a World-class System?
Rankings are influencing our perceptions of and decisions about higher education policy
in two major ways:
1) Rankings have highlighted the importance of quality and striving for excellence in
a competitive world. As a result, international or cross-jurisdictional comparisons are
likely to remain a constant feature of a globalised world. As the Australian Federal
Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research said more succinctly, it “isn’t
enough to just go around telling ourselves how good we are – we need to measure
ourselves objectively against the world’s best” (Carr, 2009). Thus, rankings have
influenced the way we think about higher education, and have raised our collective
consciousness about the necessity for greater public accountability and transparency,
and to demonstrate value-for-money and return-on-public investment.
2) Rankings have highlighted the importance of investment in higher education, as a
key factor determining sustainable social and economic development in the knowledge
economy. In the 21st century, the capacity to compete globally is determined by the
calibre of the higher education system, its graduates and its contribution to “world
science”; talent and knowledge creation are the new oil. The indicators measure
attributes of socio-economic advantage, age and wealth; the results are presented as a
“league table” or “academic world order” which, in turn, is used for global positioning
and branding in order to attract capital, talent and tourism. This is putting pressure on
governments to increase or at least maintain investment in higher education in order to
ensure national competitiveness.
Given this effect, many governments use rankings, inter alia, to classify and accredit HEIs,
allocate resources, drive change, assess student learning and learning outcomes and/or
evaluate faculty performance and productivity, at the national and institutional level.
They are used as an accountability or transparency tool, especially in societies and
institutions where this culture and practices are weak or immature.
Many myths are promulgated about the value of rankings for policymaking or strategic
decision-making. But, rankings should be used cautiously – and only as part of an overall
quality assurance and assessment or benchmarking system and not as a stand-alone
evaluation tool. Four examples will suffice:
1. Rankings provide useful comparative information. It is often argued that rankings
provide useful comparative information about university performance which facilitates
student choice and policymaking. But HEIs are complex organisations, providing
education from undergraduate to PhD level, conducting research, participating in
outreach initiatives, and being a source of innovation and entrepreneurship. For many
countries, they are a critical engine of nation-building, a
regional, national and global gateway attracting highly-skilled talent and
investment, actively engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders
through knowledge and technology transfer, and underpinning the global
competitiveness of nations and regions...As a group, they sit within vastly
different national context, underpinned by different value systems,
meeting the needs of demographically, ethnically and culturally diverse
populations, and responding to complex and challenging political-
economic environments (Hazelkorn, 2011a, 78).
Publicly-funded, private not-for-profit and for-profit HEIs operate in very different
financial circumstances, and with different levels of governance and financial autonomy.
There is a wide variance of students served by these institutions. It is difficult to compare
institutions – or indeed academic departments – across different national contexts or to
measure quality through measurements of quantification. But this is what rankings
purport to do.
2. Rankings provide good measures for research. Despite criticism about the
disproportionate focus on research, the choice of indicators is usually considered
meaningful or “plausible”. However, as discussed above, the data primarily reflects basic
research in the bio- and medical sciences. As a consequence, some disciplines are valued
as more important than others, and research’s contribution to society and the economy
is seen primarily as something which occurs only within the academy. In this way,
rankings misrepresent the breadth and dynamism of the research-innovation process
and higher education’s role as part of the innovation eco-system, what the European
Union calls the “knowledge triangle” of education/learning, research/discovery and
innovation/engagement. This narrow conceptualisation of research is helping to drive a
wedge between teaching and research at a time when policymakers and educators
advocate the need for more research-informed teaching (Hazelkorn, 2009).
3. Concentrating resources in a few world-class universities. There is a strong view
internationally which argues the policy priority should be to concentrate resources in a
few elite universities in order to “lift all boats”, using a metaphor often associated with
economic growth. This view is based on the assumption that high ranked HEIs are better
quality institutions than those which are either lower ranked or not ranked. However,
while top-ranked universities may produce the majority of all peer-reviewed papers,
those who publish in refereed journals do not necessarily have the application of their
knowledge as an objective. Nor is it obvious this kind of investment will create sufficient,
patentable or transferable knowledge that can be exploited and used by society.
Concentrating research in a few institutions could reduce the over-all national research
capacity with perverse “knock-on consequences for regional economic performance and
the capacity for technology innovation” (Lambert, 2003, p6; Adams and Gurney, 2010).
Furthermore, there is no evidence that more concentrated national systems generate
higher citation impact than those in which output is more evenly distributed, because
concentration is most relevant in only four disciplines of “big science”: biological
sciences, clinical medicine, molecular biology/biochemistry, and physics (Moed, 2006).
The key factor underpinning improved national research performance and
competitiveness is consistent investment.
4. Rankings measure quality. Most (global) rankings primarily measure research
which is widely interpreted as being equivalent to education quality. This has led to
much confusion. The choice of indicators is based on the opinion and values of the
different ranking organisations, influenced to a great extent by the available data. But,
the indicators don’t and can’t measure how good the teaching is, how well students
learn or if the facilities and resources are actually used by the students. They take no
account of how well a HEI fulfils its mission or contributes to society. “Which university
is best” can be asked differently depending upon who is asking the question, which
question is being asked and for what purpose. Is the user a student choosing a
college/university in his/her own country or abroad or a government seeking to make
decisions about resource allocation?
It is time to look at alternatives (see Hazelkorn, 2012a)? Rankings encourage us to
emulate the achievements of a few elite “world class universities” as the panacea for
success in today’s competitive world. An alternative approach says that what matters
for sustainable social and economic prosperity is how governments balance the needs of
all its citizens by creating a “world-class system”, characterised by having:
Coherent portfolio of horizontally differentiated high performing and actively
engaged institutions – providing a breadth of educational, research and student
Open and competitive education, offering the widest chance to the broadest
number of students;
Developing knowledge and skills that citizens need to contribute to society
throughout their lives, while attracting international talent;
Graduates able to succeed in the labour market, fuel and sustain personal, social
and economic development, and underpin civil society; and
Operating successfully in the global market, international in perspective and
responsive to change.
A whole-of-system benchmarking methodology, using a sophisticated set of quantitative
and qualitative accountability and transparency instruments, provides a better way to
assess and ensure quality (see Salmi, 2012). This method can be used to i) Highlight and
accord parity of esteem to diverse institutional profiles to facilitate public comparability,
democratic decision-making and institutional benchmarking; ii) Identify what matters
and assess those aspects of higher education, including improvements in performance
not simply absolute performance; and iii) Enable diverse users and stakeholders to
design fit-for-purpose indicators and scenarios customised to individual stakeholder
requirements – but this does make international comparison difficult. Because any
assessment systems can incentivise institutional and individual behaviour, it is vital that
the choice of indicators recognise, support and reward the full spectrum of higher
education endeavours across education/learning, research/discovery and
innovation/engagement. To be meaningful, comparisons should be conducted at regular
intervals. Critically, the collection and control of data and verification of the processes
should not be the remit of private/commercial providers or self-appointed auditors;
UNESCO might see this as a useful role for itself perhaps in collaboration with other
Rankings are only one form of comparison; they are popular today because of their
simplicity. However, their indicators of success are misleading. Rather than using
definitions of excellence designed by others for other purposes, what matters most is
whether HEIs fulfil the purpose and functions which governments and society want them
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