University reputations built up over years are vulnerable as never before

February 27, 2012

At first there was much hilarity. When I was named this month among the top 15 “most influential” people in education by The Australian newspaper, the jokes came thick and fast: “You’re only the fourth most influential person in your own household,” said one colleague. “That’s if you don’t include the cat,” added someone a little closer to home.

Appearing in 14th place in the 50-strong list, below Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (in second), but above 33rd-placed Alfred Nobel (recognised for helping put Australian scholarship on the map), did feel bizarrely comical.

Of course, my inclusion in the power list, as editor of a widely-watched global ranking, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, was for a very serious reason.

“In the past decade rankings have taken hold, dramatically reshaping university strategies and objectives,” the newspaper said. “Mission documents are littered with aspirational references to be in the top 100 this or top 10 that...Arguments rage on Twitter, in blogs and the media as to the merits or otherwise of various methodologies.

“Like them or not... their impact on how universities go about their business is undeniable.”

This is, of course, true. Times Higher Education’s rankings are huge.

Our website received close to two million visits in the 24 hours after publication of the World University Rankings in October 2011. Within the first month, that was heading towards 10 million.

The rankings are not just informing student choices, but influencing faculty career decisions, helping to forge new international research partnerships, shaping senior management strategies and even driving national government policy in some places.

Ben Wildavsky said in his influential book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, that rankings are certainly not going away and they can be a positive force.

“Rankings are an unmistakable reflection of global academic competition...they seem destined to be a fixture on the global education scene for years to come,” he said. “As they are refined and improved they can and should play an important role in helping universities get better.”

The key words here, I believe, are “refined and improved”. With such heavy weight being placed on rankings, the responsibility of those who compile such tables is large.

That is why in late 2009, after six years of publishing a popular global university ranking, Times Higher Education decided to go back to the drawing board and start again with a new mission and new data partner, Thomson Reuters. We built a new ranking system that better meets the needs and demands of a rapidly globalising higher education sector.

The new system, developed after almost 10 months of open consultation and with detailed expert input from a group of around 50 leading higher education experts, has bedded in very well.

After some important methodological refinements between the first iteration in 2010 and last year’s table, we have had much praise and much support for our approach. Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Scotland, said that Times Higher Education’s rankings were now “increasingly seen as the gold standard”.

But as The Australian’s “most influential” list reminds us, we must never be complacent. We have a responsibility not only to maintain a ranking system that better bears the weight placed upon it, but also to be honest about the inherent limitations of all rankings.

We must be honest about what data exists that can be fairly compared across national borders and we must be clear about what global rankings do not measure, and cannot measure. We must be clear about the compromises made and the proxies employed. We must be transparent.

As part of this commitment to transparency – and, I have to admit, because it also provides a fascinating insight in its own right – I am delighted that for the second year running we will publish on 15th March a subsidiary to the annual World University Rankings, known as the World Reputation Rankings.

The World University Rankings are made up of 13 separate performance indicators, including the results of an annual Academic Reputation Survey – a simple opinion poll asking academics to name a small number of the ‘best’ universities in their field for both teaching and research.

The results of this survey alone, which has attracted almost 31,000 responses from 149 countries in two annual rounds since 2011, are revealed in isolation in the World Reputation Rankings.

The reputation rankings are based on nothing more than the subjective judgment of scholars. But it is the considered, expert judgment of senior scholars – the people best placed to know the most about excellence inside our universities.

While the new table will tackle reputation alone, there is no doubt that reputation really matters. In a competitive global market, a strong academic reputation gives tangible, real-world benefits – helping institutions attract and retain the best faculty, the best students, the best research and business partners, even the richest benefactors.

And in a global information age, reputations built up over years – often centuries – are vulnerable as never before.

The World Reputation Rankings not only make Times Higher Education more accountable, they also provide a unique and valuable insight into the unstable status of the world’s top university brands. Publishing them shows that we take our ‘influence’, in Australia and elsewhere around the world, very seriously indeed.

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