World-Class Universities or World-Class Systems: Rankings and Higher Education Policy Choices
Is it always a good thing when a university rises up the rankings and breaks into the top 100? Do rankings raise standards by encouraging competition or do they undermine the broader mission to provide education? Should rankings be used to help decide educational policy and the allocation of scare financial resources? Should policy aim to develop world-class universities or to make the system world-class?
University rankings have dominated headlines and the attention of political and university leaders wherever or whenever they are published or mentioned. Politicians regularly refer to them as a measure of their nation’s economic strengths and aspirations, universities use them to help set or define targets. What started out as an innocuous consumer product – aimed at undergraduate domestic students – has rapidly become a global intelligence information business – impacting, influencing, and incentivizing higher education, and its stakeholders inside and outside the academy. Today, there are over 50 national rankings and ten global rankings, including the European Union’s U-Multirank
However, while much of the focus has been on methodological issues or how rankings may influence student choice, little is known about how rankings influence government policy. Around the world, governments are using rankings to guide the restructuring of higher education because societies which are attractive to investment in research and innovation and highly skilled mobile talent will be more successful globally. Many countries have introduced policy initiatives with the primary objective of creating “world-class” universities. For many governments, the world-class university has become the panacea for ensuring success in the global economy.
There is little doubt that higher education must respond in a constructive manner to the debate about quality and performance, and identify smarter ways to assess and demonstrate impact and benefit. Political and societal support for higher education, for systems dependent upon public funding and on tuition fees, can only be maintained by quality profiling, performance enhancement and value-for-money which provides (public) investor confidence.
Because there are direct correlations between societal value systems and policy choices, what matters is how governments prioritise their objectives of a skilled labour force, equity, regional growth, better citizens, future Einsteins and global competitiveness, and translate them into policy. Aligning systems to indicators set by others for commercial or other purposes threatens the very foundations of national sovereignty and society. It pits equity and excellence against each other, and favours elite models rather than world-class systems.
This paper surveys the overall impact and influence that rankings are having on higher education institutions, and particularly on higher education policy. Drawing on international research, the paper raises questions with this approach and proposes an alternative. Because meeting the fiscal requirements may go far beyond national budgets, governments should focus on benchmarking systems rather than ranking institutions: world-class systems rather than world-class universities.
Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education. The Battle for World-Class Excellence was published by Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.