Does the world revolve around world university rankings?
I asked myself this question recently when I attended a national seminar on higher education in Serbia. One of the university rectors told me that his priority was to get his institution into Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities. "It is a question of pride," he said.
This is but one example of how international rankings of universities are influencing the behaviour of governments and institutional leaders. Our concern at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is that this is promoting a unidimensional profile of universities that acts against the interests of the large majority of students seeking higher education.
The fact is that the best-known rankings are, in essence, based on research output. When higher education policy expert Philip Altbach of Boston College asked rhetorically, "Where is teaching in university rankings?", he answered his own question with, "In a word - nowhere!"
The key trend identified at Unesco's 2009 World Conference on Higher Education was massification, the rapidly growing demand for higher learning that requires higher education systems to diversify and offer a wide range of teaching programmes. But if public universities choose to focus more strongly on research, they risk being supplanted in their teaching function by other institutions, both public and for profit, that focus on meeting student demand.
This danger is exacerbated by new learning technologies that are challenging the sector to rethink its approach to teaching. Do we want to see higher education split into a public sector focused on research and a for-profit sector doing most of the teaching?
All of this suggests that universities should think twice before engaging highly paid consultants to advise them on how to improve their place in the rankings.
In this context, the aim of Unesco's upcoming Global Forum on rankings is to alert governments and institutions to the dangers of focusing on such measures rather than on their own national and institutional goals. In examining the different methodologies that rankings employ, it will highlight the ways in which policymaking can be skewed by a pursuit of league-table placements.
One potentially helpful trend that is sure to be discussed is the diversification of the rankings themselves. The news media are important consumers of rankings, and they are always looking for new approaches because a league table that changes only marginally from year to year is not news.
But ultimately, governments would do well to develop their own national criteria against which to judge the performance of their universities, and institutions should refine their mission statements to target as precisely as possible the national development goals to which they wish to contribute.
As always, students' views can be instructive. Although they are influenced by institutions' reputations, the criteria they use can frequently seem counter-intuitive. A colleague told me recently that significant numbers of Chinese students elect to study in Manchester because of the fame of the Manchester United football team. We must be sure that the measures we focus on are not equally irrelevant to what higher education institutions truly have to offer.
Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic is chief of the section for higher education at Unesco. Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, a Unesco Global Forum, will be held in Paris on 16-17 May.