University rankings don’t affect all universities equally

The financial sustainability of United Kingdom universities is fragile and the full impact of COVID and Brexit on the UK higher education sector, which currently relies on tuition fees for more than a half of its income, remains unclear. Universities watch out for their rankings as the chase for students, talented research staff and third-party investors intensifies. But, are rankings more consequential for some universities than for others?

As part of a recent study, we found that it is the elite, Russell Group universities that are “exempt” from the effects of rankings competition, compared to all other universities. Specifically, we analysed the financial sustainability of a nationally representative sample of 102 English universities, from 2008 to 2017.

We found that national rankings had no impact on the financial sustainability of Russell Group universities. However, for all other universities, moving down the rankings by one place is expected to bring a 3.6% decrease in their percentage ratio of surplus to total income; and vice versa, moving up the rankings makes them more financially sustainable.

A significant implication of this finding is that rankings are a long way away from ensuring meaningful competition. Instead, rankings reinforce and shape competition differentially across institutions. The financial responsiveness to rankings observed among universities that are not part of the Russell Group can be seen as an opportunity to grow financially by improving in rankings.

Equally, financial responsiveness to rankings can be seen as threatening for these universities as their survival depends on their competitiveness in rankings. This vulnerability to rankings can also translate into tougher managerialist interventions at the university level.

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