Academics love to hate them, but university league tables can be a force for good, according to new research.
A report by the US Institute for Higher Education Policy has found that rankings can foster collaboration, lead institutions to share best practice and prompt improvements in teaching and learning.
The report, Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision-Making: Four Country Case Studies, says that university ranking systems, although controversial, have become "an entrenched phenomenon around the world". It identifies the annual Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings and Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities as the two "most prominent" global systems.
It acknowledges there are "many valid criticisms" of domestic and international ranking systems, with some institutions placing "too much importance on their ranking position over other ... practices".
But it adds: "Rankings can encourage institutions to move beyond their internal conversations to participate in broader national and international discussions."
Tables can also encourage partnerships between institutions, the report says: "Rankings are often perceived as instigators of competition among institutions, but the case studies suggest that they also foster collaboration, such as research partnerships, student and faculty exchange programmes, and alliances. (They) can be important starting points to identify institutions with which to collaborate."
The report also identifies direct benefits to teaching and learning.
"Institutions that use their rankings to prompt change in areas that directly improve student learning experiences demonstrate that rankings can lead to positive change in teaching and learning practices.
"For some institutions in the study, the peer benchmarking function of rankings is leading to the identification and replication of model programmes. Institutions should be open to using rankings to identify and share best practices."
It also highlights how influential rankings have become globally.
"Many staffing and organisational decisions ... worldwide have been affected by ranking-related goals," it says, with one of the biggest changes being the growth of international offices. Rankings are also thought to drive "the appointment and dismissal of some institutional presidents", it says.
The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2009 will be published on 8 October.