Universities in the lower reaches of the world rankings will mount "incredible pressure" on the elite and dethrone institutions such as Harvard University and Oxford and Cambridge, according to an educational expert at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Dirk Van Damme, head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD, delivered an analysis of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings at a conference held by THE and Thomson Reuters in London.
His analysis shows that universities in the lower reaches of the top 200 are better at translating research income into citation impact than the top universities and that there is little divergence in teaching quality to separate the elite from the chasing pack.
"There will be incredible pressure from institutions improving rapidly beyond the top 200," Professor Van Damme told delegates at the Building a World-Class University conference at the Royal Institution last week. "The competition will be so hard that it will be very difficult for Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford to maintain their status."
He added: "Most universities in the world do a pretty good job in teaching - they are not so different. But ability to translate income into citations goes up at the bottom (of the top 200). It shows that the pressure from below is very high."
Answering questions from the audience, Professor Van Damme said Oxford and Cambridge were "perceived to be far more excellent than reality testifies. The sub-top of the UK is far better in efficient utilisation of resources, in producing added value - not only in research but also in teaching."
He also argued that leading US universities had been hit hard by the economic crisis, while up-and-coming forces in higher education such as the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland had suffered less.
Professor Van Damme suggested that the ideal ranking would compare institutions "on the basis of learning outcomes", which he said was "the only way to measure the added value of teaching". He said he looked hopefully to the OECD's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project.
By contrast, Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, used his address to deliver "a fundamental attack on the whole development of league tables - their direction and their potentially malign effect".
He argued that no one had yet answered the question of what a university ranking is for. "Does it capture what universities really do in transforming lives?" he asked.
Professor Grant said it was false to compare UK institutions' research income - allocated via a competitive peer-review system - with research block grants awarded in other countries.
He questioned the "subjective" judgements of rankers and noted official use of privately compiled rankings by governments.
During questions from the audience, Amanda Goodall, of Warwick Business School, argued that rankings were "here to stay. I'm not sure that old universities like UCL will ever benefit...They are good for the young ones, the rebels."
Professor Grant replied: "Rankings are here to stay - so is heroin. That doesn't mean you have to embrace them and give them credibility."
But Siyan Oyewesu, of Osun State University, Nigeria, said rankings could help universities in developing higher education systems. "Many universities are not aware of best practice," he added.
Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, welcomed Professor Grant's speech and said it was important to have an open debate.
Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters, said it was useful to provide rankings for an audience with less time to engage with detail - such as prospective students - while also allowing a more expert audience to fully engage with the data and make their own comparisons.
WILD TIMES FOR US FOR-PROFITS
The for-profit higher education sector in the US is like the "Wild West", according to the president of the University of Chicago.
Robert Zimmer told the Building a World-Class University conference that while some for-profit firms are "quite capable", others are failing students.
"Unfortunately it is a bit of a Wild West," he said. "The ones doing a good job get tarred with (the same brush as) the hucksters just trying to make a fast buck."
US for-profits are under intense scrutiny, with Congressional hearings following a government investigation into alleged misleading and fraudulent tactics in recruitment activities. Critics argue that the for-profits have sought to maximise their income from students with federal loans, while failing to minimise dropout rates.
Professor Zimmer argued that it is far harder for individuals to put a value on the "long-term investment" of a university education than it is on an orthodox market transaction.
"In the for-profit business, I think the capacity to not serve people well is high."
But Professor Zimmer argued that competition between not-for-profit private colleges and state institutions had served the US university sector well, adding that a centrally run national higher education system reduced the ability for university leaders to contribute their own ideas.