Mapping the plateaux as well as the peaks

January 1, 1990

16 September 2010

Despite their limitations and potential for misuse, rankings will continue to be key tools in a higher education landscape marked by greater globalisation and accelerating change, says Dirk Van Damme

The world of higher education is changing utterly and we must all find our way in it. Rankings aspire to be signposts for students, families, scholars, institutional leaders and politicians in a rapidly globalising system that still has very little transparency. Old-fashioned academic reputation, based on obscure grounds but stubbornly enduring, can no longer show the way.

Like many other fields of human enterprise affected by globalisation, higher education finds itself measured, quantified and compared across institutions and nations. For quite a few years now, world university rankings such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, the previous Times Higher Education World-QS University Rankings and others have been trying to assess the dimensions and vectors of the global system. Their impact on institutions is huge. They also have seduced regional and national policymakers and persuaded them to favour bold statements, seemingly based on undisputable truths, and to harbour even more audacious ambitions.

The success of global tables underlines the need for transparency. Rankings have undoubtedly improved the readability of the system, but despite significant improvements, we are still far away from the clarity that the global higher education community requires.

But the emergence and impact of rankings has also resulted in much debate and controversy. They are criticised for their one-sided focus on research, their methodological flaws and their implicit preferences for only one type of institutional profile, among other concerns. Indeed, the rankings have evolved thanks to debates such as these and have improved their methodology and reliability.

The debate has not ended, but the dominant opinion in the higher education community is that rankings are here to stay. Their sustainability and — I believe — their future longevity has little to do, as critics claim, with their political usefulness, with the complicity of university leaders or with the simplicities of the global market. They simply express a very basic truth regarding the global academic system: that excellence in research is critical for the quality of a university (and this is excellence that can be measured, thanks to sophisticated bibliometrics). Still, the question remains whether those doing the ranking are wearing the pair of glasses best suited to scrutinising the changing world of higher education.

The myopia of rankings — focusing on competitive research and less on teaching and learning — is well known. Probably the best service that future rankings could offer to the global community is to become more meaningful with regard to that other noble function of universities, advanced teaching and learning. A world-class research environment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for excellence in teaching and learning.

It is also well known that the best research universities may perform rather poorly in guaranteeing students an excellent learning environment. Rankings will have to improve on measuring and comparing the quality of teaching and learning arrangements. This is certainly not an easy task, but a good first step would be coming to terms with the challenge of how to evaluate students' learning outcomes, as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project aspires to do.

It is also true that, by their very nature, rankings give us a much better view of the mountain tops than they do of the plateaux where most people in the sector live and work. Obviously, the pinnacle is where one wants to be. Rankings fuel this fascination with the top and stimulate the system to edge ever closer to a reality where, like in sport, the winner takes all.

Unfortunately, there are only 100 places in the top 100, and there are many more institutions that — perhaps legitimately — believe that they belong there. The good thing about rankings, though, is that they keep challenging the winners.

In the near future, I would not be surprised to see much more movement at the top. Contrary to some colleagues, I do not see this dynamism as a sign of instability in the measurement system, but as a genuine articulation of the fact that the world is becoming flat. In the near future, the Harvards, Oxfords and Tokyos of this world may well find their lofty positions becoming less secure than they are today.

Do rankings focus too much on stability rather than on change? They suffer from an inherently slow-time perspective. The shutter of the rankings "camera" is very slow, and historical achievements have a long-term impact. This is especially relevant in times of crisis and transformation, as we are experiencing today.

The economic recession and fiscal consolidation in many countries is abruptly changing the working conditions of many institutions, which face very difficult budgetary constraints. The result will be more mobility, especially of promising young researchers and international students who work and live globally; more opportunities for high-potential institutions; and, thus, more volatility at the top. A global redistribution of research excellence may soon take place. And the traditional centres of science and research may find their hegemony challenged by other regions around the world.

Change is also taking place in the middle section of the list. But the reality of a plateau is different from the hierarchy that rankings are looking for. Expansion of the system has increased the number of universities that deliver quality that is good and not just average in the statistical meaning of the word.

Mass higher education in a global knowledge economy needs a very high number of institutions that achieve good quality. The implicit suggestion that excellence is something to be found only at the top may be appropriate for elite systems, but not for 21st-century mass higher education. A high plateau is not synonymous with mediocrity, but demonstrates the fact that so many institutions actively engage in the global system of science and research and actively and positively contribute to it. They do so in many different ways, with increasingly diverging institutional missions and profiles. The next generation of rankings will have to acknowledge this diversity and give credit to it, while still maintaining the positive externalities of competition.

Rankings are not perfect. They need to be improved continuously and they sometimes lend themselves to dreadful misuses. But they enhance accountability and transparency, they stimulate comparability and competition, and in so doing they strengthen the global system of scientific research and higher education. This is only the beginning and much more work needs to be done.

Dirk Van Damme is head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

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