The easiest knock on rankings like those produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is that they only measure research, and that universities are about much more than just research. That’s absolutely true, of course, but to my mind it also reflects a general unwillingness to come to grips with what an odd, hybrid of an organization higher education really is.
Go back two hundred years and universities were nearly irrelevant as institutions. The decline of the church had robbed the academy of much of its traditional purpose. Napoleon thought universities so useless that he closed them all and created a set of grandes écoles instead. Similarly, in Germany, universities at the start of the nineteenth century were seen as so useless in contributing to national priorities that they were completely remodeled along research lines by Alexander Humboldt.
The idea of a research mission is so ingrained in our understanding of a university that it’s hard to imagine them without it – but historically, it’s a fairly recent development. In the early 1800s, nearly all scientific research was done outside universities. The spread of the German model in the nineteenth century changed that a bit, but in many ways it was only the two World Wars of the twentieth century and the persuasive arguments of Vannevar Bush that really convinced governments to (a) spend on scientific research and (b) over time, concentrate that spending in universities. Nowadays, there’s very little discovery-oriented research that doesn’t occur in universities.
In other words, over the course of the last two centuries, as part of a long-term quest to become more relevant, the university (writ large) ate science.
That has consequences. Though teaching isn’t really much of a prestige activity, and teaching has almost exclusively a local impact and local role, science wants to be global. To use a neurological metaphor, individual scientists or labs are like neurons, and they are always seeking to send out dendrites to find and link up with other related neurons, with information passing between them to create positive feedback loops. One of the things that research rankings (and the bilbliometric studies on which they are based) do, at a very high level at least, is provide some indication to scientists as to where to send out their dendrites. In that sense, they are an essential tool in the globalization of science.
In sum: rankings are useful to science, but rankings irritate universities. Given that universities gorged themselves on science and reaped major benefits as a result, it’s not unreasonable to think of rankings as a form of indigestion after a very fine meal.