The Times Higher 's world university rankings were not designed as a stick with which to beat recalcitrant governments. But, with hindsight, it may have been inevitable that they would be used as such in some countries). Among the shoals of e-mail inquiries that followed the publication of this year's rankings, a number have demanded to know the reasons for the absence of universities from a particular country when a neighbour has been relatively successful. The call for a royal commission in Malaysia and demands for better higher education funding in Ireland are just the most visible examples of lobbying taking place in many parts of the world.
In some countries, there will be perfectly reasonable explanations for perceived underformance: the two Malaysian universities slipped down the ranking because of a clarification of data, not because standards have slumped in 12 months. Others may legitimately claim a disadvantage from teaching and publishing in a language other than English. But, where the rankings highlight deficiencies in the treatment of universities by the state, the debate is to be welcomed. Acquiring a reputation as one of the world's leading universities takes more than generous public funding - as Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League demonstrate - but it is an essential starting point.