Politicians should not use global university rankings to allocate funding, and such rankings must be "democratised" to reach beyond elite research institutions, a report states.
The European University Association (EUA) study, Global University Rankings and their Impact, also warns that rankings could put added pressure on humanities subjects, which "remain ignored by nearly all of the bibliometric indicators used in global league tables".
Andrejs Rauhvargers, the author of the report and professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Latvia, told Times Higher Education that governments were making funding decisions for entire higher education systems based on the rankings performance of a small number of universities.
"I hope that after reading this report, politicians will take other approaches," he said.
Professor Rauhvargers, who is also secretary general of the Latvian Rectors' Conference, added that university budgets were being slanted towards spending that boosted rankings: "There will be no extra money if you use all (the funding) to keep your position, or slightly improve your position, in the rankings."
The report, presented at a conference in Brussels on 17 June, says that the various rankings in existence cover only between 1 and 3 per cent of the world's 17,000 universities.
It argues that they invite society and policymakers to judge all institutions against the criteria set by top research-intensive universities - the highest achievers in the various rankings.
With the league tables attracting more and more attention, "there is a demand for more 'democratic' rankings", Professor Rauhvargers writes.
He adds that the existing rankings "have created problems for the thousands of 'normal' universities that simply do their job".
The league tables should recognise "those institutions that have been created with a special function, for instance to serve the region in which they are located, or to provide higher education to adult students or those working alongside their studies", he argues.
The EUA report follows a feasibility study into the separate European Commission-funded U-Multirank system, which aims to compare institutions across a range of missions without an overall league table.
The report argues that there is a lack of transparency in the presentation of ranking methodologies; that research performance is measured more accurately than teaching; that teaching indicators "are all proxies", such as staff-to-student ratios, rather than real indicators of quality; that there is a bias towards subjects, such as natural sciences and medicine, with high citation counts; and that rankings create incentives for institutions to merge to improve their scores.
On the benefits of the tables, Global University Rankings says they have "certainly helped to foster greater accountability and increased pressure to improve management practices", as well as being used to argue for additional higher education investment in some countries.
But "it would be difficult to argue that the benefits offered ... are greater than the 'unwanted consequences'", it adds.