27.06.2013 -

Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: uses and misuses

A new UNESCO publication, Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, debates the pros and cons of classifying universities. It brings together the people behind university rankings and their critics to debate the uses and misuses of existing rankings.

This publication emerged from the Global Forum Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and misuses, the first-ever global consultation on the subject organized by UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank in May 2011 and which brought together researchers, academics, policy analysts, students, and institutional leaders at an international level.

The book develops many of the issues addressed during that landmark consultation. UNESCO has followed closely the evolution of university rankings, having previously published volumes on ranking methodologies (2005) and the related issue of the “world-class university” (2007 and 2009). In addition, this book is the first in a new UNESCO series, Education on the Move, which aims at bringing the latest thinking in education to specialists worldwide.

Overview of the issues

Featuring voices from five continents, the publication provides a comprehensive overview of current thinking on the subject and sets out alternative approaches and complementary tools for a new era of transparent and informed use of higher education ranking tables.

Two sides of the debate

1. Rankings purport to measure higher education quality, but 

-There are over 16,000 HEIs in the world, and global rankings focus our attention on performance of less than 100 – or less than 1%. The pervasiveness of focusing on the top institutions obscures the fact that the majority of students attend non-elite HEIs. 

 -Rankings throw no light on how a nation’s higher education system educates all its students and citizens  

  • Rankings encourage nations to focus disproportionately on a handful of elites, which could undermine national or regionally strategic priorities and capacity for the knowledge society; 
  • Focus should be on ensuring the system is world class rather than on the performance of the individual “world-class university”; 
  • Aligning national priorities to meet the criteria of rankings is an abdication of national sovereignty. Because national budgets are a zero-sum-game (spending in one area means taking from somewhere else), governments risk subverting other policy objectives in order to conform to indicators designed by others for other purposes. 

-Disproportionate emphasis on research can undermine teaching and learning;


2. Nonetheless, rankings have succeeded in: 

-Having acted as a wake-up call about the value and importance of higher education especially for nations who may not have been investing sufficiently; 

-Having placed consideration of higher education quality within a wider comparative and international framework. This has challenged self-perceptions of greatness. There is no more room for self-promotion. 

-With the onslaught of global rankings, the higher education world has become more competitive but also multi-polar. Many more countries are shown to be making a contribution to knowledge creation and dissemination.

-While rankings do not measure what is meaningful about the quality of higher education, they have drawn our attention to the importance of good quality comparative information about performance and productivity, value-for-money and return on public investment: 

  • Good quality, international comparative information is essential to underpin strategic leadership and decision-making at the national and institutional level; 
  • Comparable information on HEIs, teaching & research makes it easier for students and researchers to make informed choices on where and what to study and where to work; 
  • Improved data-based or evidence-based decision-making can prompt discussions about what constitutes success and encourage benchmarking to identify and share best practices.

In sum, rankings should evolve to give information that is more pertinent to the needs of universities, students and policy-makers, to match local contexts and contribute to the growth of excellence in higher education systems rather than a limited number of world-class institutions.

Useful Links

Link to the book (pdf version): http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002207/220789e.pdf

Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, Edited by P. T. M. Marope, P. J. Wells and E. Hazelkorn




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