The growing influence that university world rankings have in shaping governments' higher education strategies should not detract from domestic concerns, the president of the International Association of Universities has said.
Goolam Mohamedbhai said that governments across the world are increasingly prizing places for their institutions in the upper reaches of world rankings, but they should be "very cautious" about making such success a strategic objective.
Speaking to Times Higher Education after a conference in the Netherlands to mark the 60th anniversary of the IAU, he said that one theme discussed by delegates had been the importance of world rankings.
"It's easy for governments and institutions to make the rankings an objective. Every country can say it would like to have one or two world-class universities and pump resources into that, but many countries do not have the resources.
"This may lead to governments diverting resources from elsewhere, or closing institutions to create one or two that are world-class," said Professor Mohamedbhai.
"I used to be vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius, a small university in a small country that didn't appear in the world rankings, and I didn't expect it to. I was more interested in how my little university served the community. But my Government may suddenly decide that they must do something about this and pump however many billion rupees into it to get it into the rankings. The problem then is there are other priorities in my country, health and so on, so it is a question of balancing resources and getting priorities right."
Martin Ince, the editor of the Times Higher Education/QS World University Rankings, said: "Hundreds of universities around the world aspire to global importance. They cannot all succeed. The competition is fierce, and globalising a university is expensive in money and in management time.
"It is understandable that some universities decide to adopt a local role rather than an ambitious global route that may not have the full support of the staff involved. We are working on regional rankings that will reflect how universities compare in these national and regional missions," Mr Ince said.
"But many governments around the world are anxious to have a top-rank university, because of the cultural and political status it brings, the student fees it earns, and the contribution of research and education to economic growth."
- The Times Higher Education/QS World University Rankings will this year be published in Times Higher Education on 9 October 2008.
- Times Higher Education is holding a conference on the "Globalisation of Universities in London on 23 October 2008. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.