Sharp tools: use with care

Rankings provide insights that can help guide policymakers, but politicians must be aware of their inherent limitations, says Phil Baty

May 20, 2011

It is an indication of how startlingly influential global university rankings have become in recent years that they were the subject of a two-day global forum hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation this week.

The event was called to address the growing influence of rankings in policymaking, examining the “uses and misuses” of rankings around the world. I was delighted to be invited to speak on behalf of Times Higher Education. Participants in the forum, which was held in partnership with the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, gathered at the Unesco headquarters in Paris.

The keynote address was delivered by Ellen Hazelkorn, vice-president for research and enterprise at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Developing themes in her recent book, Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-Class Excellence, she argued that rankings are shaping the decisions and actions of institutions, students, employers, philanthropists and, increasingly, governments.

“As the provider of human capital and a primary source of new knowledge and technology transfer, higher education is commonly viewed as the engine of the economy,” she said. “Annualised rankings are quickly converted into a world-order league table…Rankings appear to pronounce on a nation’s capacity to participate in world science and the global economy.

“Governments use rankings to guide the restructuring of higher education because societies that are attractive to investment in research and innovation and to highly skilled mobile talent will be more successful globally.”

Countries around the world “have introduced policy initiatives with the primary objective of creating ‘world-class’ universities”, she said, citing examples such as China, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

As welcome and forward-thinking as this may sound, Professor Hazelkorn continued, governments have become too focused on creating world-class universities as a “panacea for ensuring success in the global economy”. She also declared that “concentrating resources and research activity in a few places is at best counterproductive, and at worst could undermine national economic capacity, with implications for social solidarity”.

Whatever one stands on the value of concentrating resources, it is clear that global university rankings have become a serious policy tool.

To ensure that its offering was fit for such use, Times Higher Education reformed its rankings two years ago.

As editor Ann Mroz explained in late 2009: “The responsibility weighs heavy on our shoulders. We are very much aware that national policy and multimillion-pound decisions are influenced by these rankings…Therefore, we feel we have a duty to improve how we compile them…Higher education is global. THE is determined to reflect that. Rankings are here to stay. But we believe universities deserve a rigorous, robust and transparent set of rankings – a serious tool for the sector, not just an annual curiosity.”

This we have delivered. The new World University Rankings published in September 2010, with all data supplied by Thomson Reuters, represented the most sophisticated and comprehensive view of institutions worldwide. They provide serious and robust results, even as they continue to be fine-tuned.

At the Unesco event, I was keen to make one thing very clear. Although we have worked very hard, with a wide and open consultation, to deliver solid research that has indicators of real value to policymakers, senior university staff as well as to students, the results must never be over-interpreted. Politicians have to educate themselves about the limitations of any global ranking system.

Times Higher Education’s world rankings are a robust tool, but like all such systems, they are inherently crude. They cannot capture some of the most important things that universities do, such as transforming the lives of individual students. And as Professor Hazelkorn has pointed out, there is no such thing as an objective ranking – because every indicator and methodology is based on the subjective judgment of the compilers.

It is essential that policymakers understand this.

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