Pressure on rankings may lead to a more meaningful exercise

Is this the beginning of the end? Over the last years, news reports and blogs have been filled with stories and commentary articles about university rankings and their future. Some ask if this could be the slippery slope towards their demise while others are more sceptical.

What’s happening?

In 2020, the Chinese ministries of education and science and technology renounced their reliance on the Science Citation Index for academic assessment, appointment and promotion. In a move similar to actions by Dutch universities and funding agencies, the changes marked the intention to develop an evaluation system that is more reflective of Chinese context and values.

In May 2022, three Chinese universities reported they were quitting international rankings.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked a sequence of actions aimed at cutting Russia off from the global scientific community. Following publication of the Russian Union of Rectors’ statement supporting the invasion in March 2022, the European Union, the European University Association and others ceased collaboration with their Russian counterparts.

U-MultirankTimes Higher Education (THE), QS and Webometrics variously announced their intention to reduce their coverage of Russian universities; although by April, QS had modified its position.

In response, Russia announced it was dropping out of Bologna and would design a new system to meet “national interests”.

Around the same time, in the United States, several well-publicised scandals exposed rankings’ unsavoury underbelly. The Operation Varsity Blues bribery scandal saw 33 ‘famous’ parents of college applicants accused of paying more than US$25 million, while others were accused of fabricating sports credentials and entry requirements. Convictions and jail terms followed.

In 2021, the former dean of Temple University’s business school, along with two co-conspirators, was convicted of fraud for falsifying data provided to US News and World Report (USNWR). Next, Columbia University was accused of “cheat[ing] its way to the top of the US News rankings”, while Rutgers University was charged with allegedly manipulating graduate outcomes.

In November 2022, several US law schools – led by Yale – announced their withdrawal from USNWR because the methodology used “flawed survey techniques and opaque and arbitrary formulas”.

Beyond the headlines, there seem to be two trends with intersecting strands.

Geopolitical shifts

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine war, geopolitical tensions were mounting.

Brexit (2016) took UK universities outside the world’s largest research and innovation programme (€95.5 billion or US$101 billion) – which recent changes in UK quality assurance threaten to do for teaching and learning.

Events have destabilised global production and supply chains and exposed relative weaknesses in ‘Western’ research and innovation systems. Economic interdependence, the hallmark of global expansion and multilateralism, shows signs of unravelling.

Global rankings have tracked China’s steady ascent as a science and technology powerhouse. China (mainland) achieved eight universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) top 100 in 2022 compared with none in 2003 – and the United States dropped from 58 to 39 universities. More significantly, China had 71 in the top 500 compared with 19 in 2003, in contrast to the US which declined from 161 to 127 universities.

In contrast, Russia’s ambition has been woefully less successful despite coming from a stronger scientific tradition and investment through its Project 5-100 programme. No university ranked in the ARWU top 100 and only two ranked in the top 500 in 2022.

Whatever one thinks about rankings, they have helped fashion a global higher education and scientific system. The annual visualisation of ranked universities in which a growing number of global players – competitors but also collaborators – jockey for position has transfixed and transformed policies and strategies around the world.

How soon before the rankings reflect recent developments? For different reasons China and Russia may have decided there is little more to be gained from participating in rankings.

Countries and universities which rely on international students may have a different perspective, however. As for rankings themselves, these events are likely to foster further expansion of their different rankings and consultancy services customised to different audiences and new geopolitical constituencies, such as the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and Africa.

Equity, values and new priorities

If geopolitical shifts are unlikely to significantly affect global rankings, did COVID shine a light on other priorities?

Social inequities and regional disparities in educational and life opportunities and outcomes preceded the pandemic, but they were accelerated by it. There is pressure for a more responsive education system to help solve societal challenges, focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, improve student success and undertake impactful research and innovation.

In such circumstances, it’s hard to defend the behaviour of universities which prioritise being ranked among the top 100. That rankings measure the outcomes of historical advantage in the era of mass higher education is a political embarrassment.

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