How could a global common data set (CDS) come into existence? Here are a few considerations:
In addition to improving accuracy and comparability, common data sets come into existence for two reasons. The first is to save money by limiting the number of data requests flying in from every yahoo wanting to create his or her own ranking. The second, less obvious reason, is that the creation of an open-access data platform lowers the barriers to entry for new rankers. It’s a way of busting data monopolies.
For that reason, it’s unlikely that a commercial entity is going to lead the way, except as a contract provider of technical assistance. The real impetus is going to have to come from institutions themselves. But which institutions?
An initiative backed by schools from a single country or region probably wouldn’t get very far, which is why I’m not sure U-Multirank is the way forward. But formal global bodies aren’t the answer either. IAU and UNESCO have too many members wishing to play King Canute to the rising tide of rankings for them to be an option.
Ad-hoc coalitions of institutions are possible: if you were to throw together some interested IR people from (say) Australia, Canada, Singapore and Norway, you could see it happening. But structure matters in collaborations, which is why a meeting of minds at two or three of the big existing alliances like the International Alliance of Research Universities or Universitas 21 would seem like the likeliest source of a successful project. In terms of optics, locating project management outside the U.S. and U.K. would be preferable.
The keys to success will be flexibility and cost-effectiveness. If a Global CDS asks for too much data from its members, or asks for data which is too difficult to obtain or manipulate, it will never catch on. Things like research output, student survey results and more exotic ideas like “artistic output” need to be sidelined for the moment (or at least relegated to optional data fields outside the “core”).
The important thing will be the core variables: money, students, faculty. Those are things anyone can count, but which for various reasons are compiled differently around the globe. If these elements can be well-defined and well-managed, the resulting success will bring in new members and, over time, an appetite to increase the project’s scope.
Basically, creating a genuinely globally CDS is a ton of work. Thomson-Reuters or U-Multirank would have to get someone really ticked off for people to think it worth the investment. But the proliferation of university alliances are reducing the transaction cost of this kind of collaborative work every day. This could come sooner than you think.