Last week, I had the honour of chairing a session at the Conference on World-Class Universities, in Shanghai. Held on the 10th anniversary of the release of the first global rankings (both the Shanghai rankings and the Times Higher Ed Rankings – then run by QS – appeared for the first time in 2003). And so it was a time for reflection: what have we learned over the past decade?
The usual well-worn criticisms were aired: international rankings privilege, the measurable (research) over the meaningful (teaching), they exalt the 1% over the 99%, they are a function of money not quality, they distort national priorities… you’ve heard the litany. And these criticisms are no less true just because they’re old. But there’s another side to the story.
In North America, the reaction to the global rankings phenomenon was muted – that’s because, fundamentally, these rankings measure how closely institutions come to aping Harvard and Stanford. We all had a reasonably good idea of our pecking order. What shocked Asian and European universities, and higher education ministries, to the core was to discover just how far behind America they were. The first reactions, predictably, were anger and denial. But once everyone had worked through these stages, the policy reaction was astonishingly strong.
It’s hard to find many governments in Europe or Asia that didn’t adopt policy initiatives in response to rankings. Sure, some – like the empty exhortations to get X institutions into the top 20/100/500/whatever – were shallow and jejune. Others – like institutional mergers in France and Scandinavia, or Kazakhstan setting up its own rankings to spur its institutions to greater heights – might have been of questionable value.
However, as a Dutch colleague of mine pointed out, rankings have pushed higher education to the front of the policy agenda in a way that nothing else – not even the vaunted Bologna Process – has done. Country after country – Russia, Germany, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and France, to name but a few – have poured money into excellence initiatives as a result of rankings. We can quibble about whether the money could have been better spent, of course, but realistically, if that money hadn’t been spent on research, it would have gone to health or defence – not higher education.
But just as important, perhaps, is the fact that higher education quality is now a global discussion. Prior to rankings, it was possible for universities to claim any kind of nonsense about their relative global pre-eminence (“no, really, Uzbekistan National U is just like Harvard”). Now, it’s harder to hide. Everybody has had to focus more on outputs. Not always the right ones, obviously, but outputs nonetheless. And that’s worth celebrating. The sector as a whole, and on the whole, is better for it.