How can BRICS universities move up the global university rankings?

January 1, 1990

University rankings have never have been more important. As more students cross borders to study, rankings offer an easy way to prioritize a plethora of options

Moreover, a burgeoning middle class in emerging markets seeks degrees closer to home with name brand and global recognition. A highly-ranked university can secure higher quality students, faculty, and partnerships – all of which work to reinforce its ranking over time.
However, most emerging market universities struggle to find a place in the rankings. They are unable to compete with well-established, better-funded institutions. For example, analysis of Nobel Prize winners’ university affiliation reveals half come from a set of just 12 American and European universities.
In a context of this increasing global competition for students, faculty, and lucrative partnerships, how can BRICS universities (those from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) secure a stronger place in global rankings?
Research spending does the most to assure a university’s continued success and to drive a university into the top 100. For example, a handful of newer universities in the world top 200, including Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore, have succeeded in improving their rankings largely due to intense government support for research.
However, in most countries, neither research investment nor the supply of qualified researchers is sufficient to drive improvement in rankings. Research investment is a major capital outlay, and to improve, universities must likely double their research spend to see results in their rank. In addition to the capital expenditure, a commitment to improving positioning of research may conservatively require at least $30 million in additional annual operating expenditure over 10-15 years.
Finally, universities in emerging markets primarily deliver value not in generating research but in educating swelling youth populations. A major research focus is therefore both impractical and unnecessary.
BRICS universities should instead generate movement in rankings by pursuing a two stage strategy and first take advantage of low-hanging fruit – highly impactful areas requiring relatively little investment. A thorough understanding of the rankings methodologies pinpoints specific variables with low capital requirements that are easy to implement.
For example, most international rankings have variables related to internationalization, such as the number of international students and availability of international exchange programs. Improving ranking in these areas can be as simple as prioritizing them for governance and faculty and allocating the appropriate resources in their direction. Systematic investment in agent relationships delivers high returns for universities, since agents are more likely to refer students to institutions with which they are familiar. Attracting more international students also has the added benefit of improving top-line revenues, as most international students are full fee-paying.
Other indicators include metrics related to graduate employment. Our surveys of students across developing markets reveal that the most important criterion for students in choosing a degree program is the likely payback period – that is, how quickly they secure a job that will enable them to pay back their degree investment. Therefore, an improvement in this area of ranking can improve not only overall ranking but also ranking in the area students most value. Simple improvements such as inviting more employers to the campus or dedicating team members to liaise directly with these employers can make a significant and rapid impact.
There are also potential improvements to the learning environment that can improve university ranking. One simple, but more expensive, step is reducing the faculty-student ratio. This measure has large returns in supporting ranking improvement and can be quickly implemented, particularly in concert with other, less expensive measures.
Internationalization, improvements in graduate placement, and reductions in faculty-student ratio are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, and can support universities to move into the top 200 to 150. However, to break into the Top 100, they will need to make the more expensive and longer-term investments in research that deliver real impact in rankings. How can this be achieved?
Successful investment in non-research activities (e.g. internationalization) can support quick, demonstrable improvements in university rankings. These successes build momentum, confidence, and interest among high-value partners, including sponsors, donors, and governments. Their support can in turn enable longer-term, higher-cost research programs that enable universities to rocket up the rankings.
BRICS universities have one chief disadvantage in the global marketplace: being relatively unknown. But this can be turned into an advantage. BRICS universities often face no negative reputation to overcome, and therefore with the right management and investment can reshape themselves quickly to develop a global profile. The international rankings are dominated by older, western universities. It is time for BRICS universities to get a seat at the table.
Karan Khemka is head of the International Education Practice, Roisin Pelley is Communications and Business Development Manager and Maryanna Abdo is director of Business Development, at the Parthenon Group.

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