Global university rankings have become extraordinarily powerful. Recently, India’s University Grants Commission set out new rules to ensure that only 500 universities ranked in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings or the Shanghai rankings are allowed to run joint degrees or twinning courses with Indian partners.
Recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev awarded official national recognition to degrees from 210 leading universities — determined in large part by their presence on the Times Higher Education list. And the THE rankings are also being used to help determine the destination of 100,000 Brazilian students who will be studying around the world under the country’s multi-million dollar Science Without Borders scheme.
Although they have been helping millions of students to make better informed study decisions for years, the THE have been filling an ever widening role as the world moves rapidly towards mass higher education and universities globalise at an unprecedented rate.
They are now used by academic faculty to inform career decisions, by university leaders to set strategic priorities, by industry chiefs to make investment decisions and — as we can see in the cases of India, Russia and Brazil — by governments to help shape crucial national policy initiatives.
However, we must acknowledge that all global university ranking tables are inherently rather crude, as they reduce universities and all their diverse missions and strengths to a single composite score. In seeking to examine the all-round performance of rich, globally competitive, research-intensive universities, composite rankings fail to properly identify niche pockets of excellence in specialist areas, and they fail to celebrate the diversity of higher education systems like India’s where institutions have many different missions and different social roles.
For example, all the global rankings put the maximum emphasis on research evaluation, judged primarily through the examination of citations to research papers published in the international journals. This will not serve the interests of emerging Indian research institutions, where research publication may be more of a national or regional activity, and it certainly does not serve those whose mission is focused on teaching.
Their reliance on data that is available — and fairly comparable — on a global scale also means that rankings can fail to fully capture some of the less tangible but still essential elements of a university. At present, for example, there is no fairly comparable data available on the quality of teaching in institutions on a global level, so proxies such as staff-student ratios must be relied upon. There is, of course, no data to be collected at all on many extremely important aspects of a university, such as its ability to transform lives, or to contribute to democratic society.
The THE’s global rankings will be an increasingly useful tool for many years to come but anyone who adheres too rigidly to league tables alone, and relies too heavily on the headline composite scores, will get only a partial picture.
Global rankings, compiled transparently and responsibly, can be a valuable — indeed an essential — tool for a rapidly globalising higher education community. But only if they are handled with care.
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings
The views expressed by the author are personal