“…regardless of our views about their merit or otherwise, rankings matter” (Hazelkorn 2017, pg. 1)
“Universities…are obsessed with gaining status in one or more national or global rankings…They should quit now”. (Altbach &Hazelkorn, 2017)
By Ruth A. Pagell*
(1 September 2017) Our first columns in 2014 introduced bibliometrics. We then presented the various rankings, their use of bibliographic indicators and their effect on higher education institutions (HEIs) within the context of information and library science. Two years later, we started examining the rankings in different Asia-Pacific countries and the rankings’ relationships to national education policies. We moved from information and library science into the realm of higher education.
At the beginning of 2017, I suggested that there should be more collaboration between researchers in scientometrics and those in higher education (RR 23). Given the lack of overlap in the existing literature, I was attracted to the Hazelkorn book to bring more higher education theory into our discussion – for those who are interested. The number of articles in the scholarly literature today linking university rankings with geopolitics can be counted on your fingers.
The book further broadens the reach of university rankings into the more comprehensive arena of geopolitics. Some rankings have an international component, relating to the movement or interaction of people between institutions and some rankings use the term “global” to capture their worldwide scope. While not defined within the book, geopolitics in this context includes the globalization, massification, marketisation, privitasation and consumerism that is driving international higher education with the proliferation of rankings being the engine that has fueled the push for everyone to be number one. Geopolitics is defined as:
- a study of the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demography on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state
- a governmental policy guided by geopolitics (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/geopolitics)
In 2003 the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy released the Academic Ranking of Global Universities (ARWU), marking the beginning of global rankings. It was not just a tool for students or faculty but a tool for the Chinese government to pursue its political and economic strategy. Since then, university rankings have played a role in national and international decision making and the country’s “geopolitical” strategy. In 2017 China took another step to integrate research universities into its geopolitical strategy. Gunn and Mitroni, (2017) discuss the new Chinese led Asian University Alliance, designed to promote cooperation among universities across the region, based on an Eastern educational model. It is an example of China’s “spot power”.
Chapters written by higher education professionals comprise the Hazelkorn book. It is divided into four parts:
- Critique – how did we get here and what have we learned
- Case studies – evidence from world regions
- Choices and policy tradeoffs
- Future directions for higher education
Only five of the authors have been cited in any Ruth’s Ranking articles. The book’s editor, Ellen Hazelkorn, is well-known for her critiques of university rankings. This book’s content is designed for higher education theorists and policy makers. However, some chapters are relevant to topics covered in Ruth’s Rankings. See Appendix 29: A for the complete Table of Contents. Relevant chapters are described below.
- Chapter 2: Global history of rankings by Alex Usher provides a history of the rankings. Also see Usher & Savino (2006) for more background information.
- Chapter 4 The dilemma of university rankings in policy and policy making by N Sirat, N Lazman and Chang Da Wan: The Malaysian Experience is a case history of university rankings in Malaysia and was written before the policy changes covered in RR 24.
- Chapter 6: East Asia: Catch-up and identity: Developments in and impacts of university ranking by A Yanezawa, S Chen, J. Jung and W Yat Wai Lo. Other articles by Yonezawa, appear in RR 28, He introduced me to the book.
- Chapter 10: India: Rankings, mass higher education and world-class universities by R. Maloo, P.Altbach and P. Agarwal. The authors look at India’s poor performance in the global rankings as we saw in RR 22.
- Chapter 11: Rankings in North America: U.S. and Canada by M.Hartley and K.D. MacDonald. This is interesting in that it highlights the one part of the world where there is more interest in national rankings than in the global rankings.
- Chapter 13: Excellence strategies and world class universities by J Salmi. The author attempts to quantify the excellence initiatives of countries, using changes in ARWU rankings as his source (see Table 1 and Table 3 from the August 2017 News Flash on the new ARWU ranking for similar data). The chapter is summarized in a short article (Salmi, 2016).
- Chapter 17: Between massification and globalization: Is there a role for global university rankings? by Tierney and Lanford. They highlight the tug-of-war between the two concepts. They also review the four pillars of most rankings: (1) reputational metrics (prestige/ surveys) which are used as measures of quality along with (2) bibliometrics, (3) internal statistical data such as faculty/staff ratios which serves as measure of teaching, and (4) international diversity. They question the relationship between prestige and quality. Most importantly they articulate the vicious or virtuous circle (depending on whether you are the institution caught up in the game or the ranking agency promoting the game). A high ranking, or for some universities, any ranking, leads to promotion and advertising on their web sites and in social media, which leads to legitimizing the rankings.
The topic for Ruth’s Rankings 20 was world class universities within the framework of the Flagship model (Douglas 2016), building quality while focusing on local and regional educational needs. This book looks at universities’ rankings as they become embedded in countries’ geopolitical strategies.
There are over 18,000 HEIs worldwide. The top 100 represent 0.5% of the world’s HEIs and about 0.4% of the world’s 200 million college students (Marklein, 2015). See Figure 1 for a visualization of the top 50 through 800 universities within the universe of all universities.
The collection of articles in the book pulls together the two conflicting statements on rankings at the start of this article. The rankings and their metrics are flawed. Commercial entities drive some of the more popular rankings with no interest in the needs of the nations or universities they cover. It is unrealistic for most universities to put their resources toward trying to be world class when their nations might be better served if they focused on educating the masses of students seeking college degrees. In today’s global education market, rankings are informing geopolitics, national agendas and institutional strategies. They cannot be ignored but they must be better understood.
The book is available for purchase in print or as an e-book. I have tried to include other writings by the book’s authors that are relevant to the topic and available online.
Altbach, P. & Hazelkorn, E. (2017). Pursuing rankings in the age of massification: For most—forget it. International Higher Education, Spring (89): pgs 8-10.
Douglas, John Aubrey, ed. (2016). The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global rankings to national relevancy. Basingstoke UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
Gunn, A & Mitroni, M. (June 2017). The changing shape of global higher education geopolitics. World University News (462).
Horta, H., Jung, J. and Yonezawa, A. (2015) Higher education in East Asia: regional and national evolution and Path Dependencies. Higher Education Policy, (28): pgs. 411-417.
Hazelkorn, Ellen, ed. (2017). Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education: Understanding the influence and impact of rankings on higher education, policy and society, London: New York: Routledge.
Hazelkorn, E. (May 2017). Universities have become isolated from their publics. University World News (459).
Marklein, M.B. (April 2015). Rankings create ‘perverse incentives’ – Hazelkorn. University World News, (362).
Salmi, J. (Fall 2016). Excellence initiatives to create world-class universities: do they work? International Higher Education Fall, (87): pgs. 17-18.
Usher A, & Savino, M. (2006). A world of difference: A global survey of university league tables. Toronto: Educational Policy Institute.
A list of Ruth’s Rankings and News Updates is here.
*Ruth A .Pagell is emeritus faculty librarian at Emory University. After working at Emory she was the founding librarian of the Li Ka Shing Library at Singapore Management University and then adjunct faculty [teaching] in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii. She has written and spoken extensively on various aspects of librarianship, including contributing articles to ACCESS – https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3238-9674.