Whether we like it or not, university ranking systems are becoming ever more important in this increasingly competitive funding landscape. There are several schools of thought regarding what they should and should not measure and next week the results of the feasibility study on U-Multirank - a new, multidimensional global ranking in higher education - are due to be revealed.
It is claimed that U-Multirank is an international transparency tool that is multidimensional, multi-level and user-driven and that, because of these characteristics, it differs substantially from all existing higher education rankings. It also addresses the needs of various stakeholders in higher education. It is one that compares similar institutions and programmes in terms of their missions and profiles. U-Multirank forms part of the European Union university modernisation agenda, which places an explicit emphasis on university diversification and the need for transparency of mission and performance.
These features have a particular resonance with work that the University of Plymouth is leading, in partnership with Teesside University, to examine higher education institutions' distinctiveness strategies. Under the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Leading Transformational Change programme, our study has analysed mission statements and strategy documents from 128 English universities in order to understand how they are positioning themselves in the current market.
Findings show 72 English universities occupying positions within what is seen as a crowded space; a space described by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in 2005 as a "red ocean". These universities are attempting to cover all bases across teaching, research and what is often labelled "knowledge transfer" activities, in a balanced or undifferentiated manner. In this space, competing institutions will need to outperform their rivals through "vertical differentiation" - that is, via league-table positions - in an effort to increase their share of a product or service demand.
What our study also shows is that other universities are navigating towards space within a "blue ocean". This represents new, emerging and distinctive market spaces where demand is created rather than fought over, leaving room for growth. In the blue ocean, we have identified a number of universities, including the relatively large number of specialists that are clearly distinct from one another, even though their mission statements cover teaching, research and "other" activities. We have also identified several highly differentiated institutions that are multidisciplinary but focus on a particular territory, such as postgraduate business engagement or internationalisation. And we have also plotted those institutions that are moving into new market spaces, with academic enterprise or business-facing missions, underpinned by research and teaching excellence.
Institutions within the blue ocean are characterised by horizontal, rather than vertical, differentiation, and it is here that there is a clear link with the ethos of the U-Multirank approach, which has the potential to capture such differentiation. Unlike, for example, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which are unashamedly focused on a competitive vertical climb, U-Multirank does not attempt to create composite scores or league tables. Rather, it takes a different approach and grades universities on six descriptive components: educational profile, student profile, research involvement, knowledge exchange, international orientation and regional engagement. It is a user-driven tool that enables an individual to select the type of institution they are looking for, based on the aforementioned criteria, and compare them directly. In terms of providing a differentiated and complementary tool to assess institutional focus in different areas, so far so good.
However, the presentational aspects of U-Multirank are of some concern. Each institution is ranked using a red/amber/green traffic-light system across all six criteria, irrespective of their mission. So, returning to our assessment of market spaces, a university could, for instance, have an explicit regional engagement mission and consciously choose not to pursue world-class research, yet it would still receive a red mark - or poor ranking - against its research profile. Why should an institution that makes a strategic choice to pursue a specific mission - at which it may well excel - receive a red mark for something that it places little or no focus on?
So while U-Multirank appears to offer a great deal of potential, our argument is that institutions should not be ranked on aspects that they explicitly choose not to pursue within their mission. Such an approach would serve to reinforce the "race to the middle", found in our own study, with institutions competing to avoid being awarded a poor ranking against any of the criteria. Surely such an outcome would go against the grain of the whole EU university modernisation agenda?