You have been warned: A breakthrough in rankings is coming

In a tweet sent from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after the closing of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence conference I wrote: “IREG 2023 clearly articulated that in the coming years nothing in the world of rankings will be the same. The main word of the conference was ‘breakthrough’. We discussed where and when it will happen, and we looked for its first signs…”

Since university rankings have been a hot issue in higher education debates for a long time and several people have asked me about this future breakthrough, I will try to explain what I mean.

A view from Central Asia

Far away from the traditional ranking conferences, Tashkent turned out to be an excellent site for the IREG 2023 Conference. Once, its cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were a key link on the Silk Road and now Uzbekistan is a fast-developing country that has made education and science the basis of its modernisation efforts.

The annual IREG conferences are the world’s only neutral place where rankers, higher education experts and analysts as well as universities – often represented by rectors – meet.

The issues discussed there often have a direct impact on rankings and their standards.

Judging by the feedback, IREG 2023 was a creative and refreshing event. Here are three characteristic comments:

• Laylo Shokhabiddinova, head specialist of the international rankings department at Tashkent State Transport University, said: “From around the world, we have come to share our experiences, ideas and insights on ranking in higher education. It has been an eye-opening experience for me, and I am grateful for the chance to connect and collaborate with such an esteemed group of professionals. As universities continue to navigate a rapidly changing landscape, it is more important than ever to stay connected and learn from each other.”

• Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, Canada, stated: “One of the most interesting ranking discussions I’ve heard in years. The difference in discourse around rankings after leaving a rich country is huge – here there is much less about marketing and much more about system control or benchmarking.”

• Komiljon Karimov, first deputy minister of higher education, science and innovation in Uzbekistan, commented: “I often participate in various conferences and seminars, but I have not met such a substantive and engaged discussion for many years.”

The conference in Tashkent showed how pragmatic and hopeful expectations about rankings are among universities and governments of countries outside Europe and North America.

They need the rankings as a tool to monitor implementation of reforms in higher education, to improve the quality of education and not for the sake of prestige. But this aspect has already been analysed by Usher in his highly recommended blog under the title “Rankings Discourses: West, East and South”.

Historical background

So, what new trends and ideas emerged in Tashkent about the global rankings landscape? To properly interpret new trends, we need to go back to the turn of the century and the beginning of the era of massification and globalisation of higher education. The UNESCO World Conference of 1998 was not able to properly describe this phenomenon. There was simply no comparable data available. It’s hard to believe, but the situation has not changed much since.

Concern about this state of affairs was sounded by Philip Altbach 10 years ago in a University World News article, “Long-term thinking needed in higher education”, in which he regretted that none of the global or regional organisations with the necessary potential and prestige (the UN, UNESCO and the OECD) had taken the necessary action on data collection.

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