University rankings capture winds of change

For two decades, Times Higher Education’s rankings have both tracked and contributed to an ever more connected world. Now universities face an unwelcome shift in global dynamics

October 13, 2022
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The publication of the 2023 Times Higher Education World University Rankings comes at a time of enormous uncertainty.

Any hope that two years of unprecedented Covid disruption would segue into an era more sensitive to the preciousness of an interconnected world seems today to be wildly misplaced.

War in Europe, a hardening of geopolitical divisions, the fracturing of global supply chains and increasing restrictions on scientific collaboration are now defining features of the landscape.

Even Covid-related barriers to international engagement linger in some parts, notably China.

In short, it feels like a dangerous time for the world, and that translates into dangerous times for universities, science and research, which both rely on and enable collaboration and understanding.

This week, in New York, university leaders from (almost) all over the world gathered for the THE World Academic Summit.

The event was held at New York University, itself a poster child for the internationalised era in higher education, with campuses, staff and students in such places as Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, as well as in Manhattan.

In an interview for the World University Rankings supplement, NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, argued that the foreboding global mood music demanded more reaching out rather than less.

Asked why NYU continues to operate a campus in China, he said: “Surely you’re not suggesting we should have fewer people in the US who can speak Mandarin? Or who are familiar with Chinese culture and Chinese history?”

It is a point well made, particularly as it is not made very often by anyone outside universities.

There is a link here to a broader point made by Hamilton: that while public perception of the value of universities may be deteriorating in many countries, “one of the reasons we get so much more attention…is because we’ve never actually been more important”.

It is a lesson he applies as much to universities’ role in supporting individuals’ aspirations or to supporting national priorities, as to the loftier and more abstract ideal of global understanding.

The publication of the world rankings is a major landmark in itself in higher education, and each new iteration adds to a longitudinal view of how universities and systems have evolved over almost two decades.

That is a period in which ever closer international integration, collaboration and – yes – competition have been constants, all aspects of higher education that the rankings have aided.

Other major trends include the decline in US dominance of the top 100, and steady improvement in the performance of universities in mainland China – both among the elite and more broadly.

That continues this year, with overall scores of Chinese universities rising and seven institutions making it into the top 100, but for the first time they are also starting to show signs of retrenchment from international engagement.

The average score among Chinese institutions for international outlook, international students, international co-authorship and international staff all fell this year.

This is not just about the closure of borders during the pandemic, since at least some of the data precede the global disruption caused by Covid. It is also about the broader chilling of global politics.

Recent years have seen political interventions – even the involvement of national security services – to place restrictions on areas of research collaboration deemed to be sensitive.

And as governments outside China make engagement harder, China inevitably responds to what Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, describes as “a more conflictual era in the geopolitics of higher education”.

The role of world rankings is much debated, but one thing that they have done over an extended period is incentivise and make visible an open and outward-looking approach to science and research in particular, which has become a defining characteristic of the past 20 years.

Another thing they do almost by definition is to reflect the world as it is, and to provide that common and consistent dataset on which we can review trends over time.

If we are now entering a period in which internationalisation is more constrained, then the rankings will show that as it unfolds.

In this year’s results, we may already be starting to see the world shifting uneasily on its axis.

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