The global challenge

As world league tables gain influence they need to reflect the multi-faceted nature of universities’ activities, says Seeram Ramakrishna

July 15, 2010

Global university rankings are a recent phenomenon. Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities was first issued in 2003. Times Higher Education published its first World University Rankings in 2004. Since then we have also seen the Spanish Webometrics Ranking of World Universities and the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan’s Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers for World Universities.

However much universities dislike or like the global league tables, they are here to stay, given the worldwide interest in the rankings of universities. They are the only source of comparison across countries, and are relevant to the growing number of globally mobile students, researchers and academics.

The rankings influence aspiring students and their families, help academics to decide on career moves, and aid employers to identify the best sources of talent. They influence the accreditation of programmes by disciplinary-specific bodies, sponsorship decisions by donors, and universities’ willingness to form partnerships. Policymakers in some countries use them to allocate preferential funding, to foster competition and to influence leadership changes at the public universities.

The responses of universities are varied. Some showcase their ranking position in pre­sen­ta­tions and publicity materials. Many others use them to assess academic units, priori­tise programmes and focus resources. As rankings gain significance there is closer scru­tiny of their methodologies, indicators and datasets. Due to the relative ease of capturing research data, their ready availability and a greater consensus on proxy metrics for research, most world rankings tend to be over-reliant on research above teaching and other university activities.

The role of universities has evolved over the centuries. At first they served primarily as seats of higher learning, scholarship and culture. The 20th century saw academics pursuing scientific research at leading universities in Europe, the US and Japan, leading to the generation of substantial new knowledge and contributing to the improvement of the quality of human life and driving economic growth.

In recent decades, with industries reducing investment in research, national governments have taken on the role of investors, to promote national competitiveness. Policymakers directed taxpayers’ money to support scientific research in universities instead of directly funding industries, and encouraged links between universities and businesses for knowledge transfer. Universities exist for the social, political and economic objectives of their regions and nations, and are increasingly important sources of entrepreneurship and generators of solutions to global challenges.

A good number of universities around the world are well placed to bring together different disciplinary expertise to address societal challenges. They are getting involved in “solutions-oriented research”, with funding support from national and international agencies and foundations.

But global university rankings reflect only a one-dimensional aspect of universities’ multi-faceted nature. There is a need to cast universities in a larger context, to highlight the full range of activities in which they engage. Systematic socio-economic impact studies of universities first appeared in the 1990s and aim to fulfil this need. At first it was primarily lesser-known universities that embarked on such studies, in bids to convince stakeholders to provide the funds needed for further development. More recently, the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the universities of Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge and Imperial College London have begun to use them.

The studies report on universities’ contri­bu­tions in areas such as the role of higher education in developing human capital; the role of university-based research in driving the economy through innovation and technology-transfer; their role in continuing education and preparing people for work in a changing world; and in building attractive communities.

The comprehensive articulation of the socio-economic impact of universities is a relatively new phenomenon, and there is no standard format yet available. Universities worldwide need to design a common framework to provide detailed information on their impact on the economy and society. They need to put in place more responsive systems to track and document a wide variety of information for longer periods. Such high-quality reports are necessary to meet the growing information needs and expectations of diverse stake­holders, including policymakers, and to ensure sustained confidence in the academy.

Seeram Ramakrishna is vice-president (research strategy), National University of Singapore.

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