6 November 2012
Global university rankings can provide "concrete benefits" such as strengthened transparency and quality assurance, the prime minister of Jamaica told an international conference last week
Portia Simpson-Miller told the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference of executive heads in Kingston on 9 November: "We are interested in how the idea of university rankings may influence quality in our higher education system."
Opening the event, which was supported by Times Higher Education magazine as ACU's centenary media partner, Ms Simpson-Miller said: "University rankings are one way of animating the academy towards remaining relevant. Any country, if it is to become and remain strong, must have a strong university base."
She added: "It has been said that university rankings may provide concrete benefits. When such rankings are sensitively handled they tend to strengthen the culture of transparency...they also tend to improve competition among universities. In truth they allow students to make informed choices for university placement. Additionally ranking systems often invite quality assurance procedures within universities."
But she added that rankings are also "intensely debated", especially with regard to whether they properly serve the interests and needs of developing countries.
She said that students from the Caribbean compare favourably whenever they stand "toe to toe" in competition with those from "Ivy League universities who are considered globally to be tertiary-level power houses". "Each time they have faced them, our students have shown them who the world leaders really are." But this is not reflected in global rankings, she said.
Speaking ahead of a panel discussion including Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings; Kris Olds, editor of the Global Higher Ed blog and Zia Batool, director general for quality assurance at Pakistan's Higher Education Commission, Ms Simpson-Miller told the delegates that rankings should consider, for example "the risks and threats of brain drain" in developing countries.
"I ask, have university rankings served us well in this region of the world? I leave it to you, the education experts, to determine the extent to which issues on either side of the debate should animate our Caribbean university systems," she said.
Ms Batool said that HEC had created domestic rankings in Pakistan to "drive universities towards improving quality standards" and making standards globally compatible. The exercise had improved Pakistani universities' international visibility and prepared them for participation in global rankings, she said.
Mr. Baty said that the THE World University Rankings sought to compare only the minority of "world class" research-intensive universities which compete on a global stage, and as such they judge all institutions against the same authoritative global performance indicators.
"The Times Higher Education rankings are already starting to highlight emerging new powers from the developing world and can challenge the complacent old hierarchies," he said. "This can help foster new collaborations between the developed and developing world."
Responding to the prime minister's argument that "ranking standards must be indexed against the needs and circumstances and conditions of particular contexts", Mr. Baty said that THE had already pioneered the THE 100 Under 50, looking specifically at younger universities which did not depend on centuries of wealth accumulation and powerful heritage. It was also looking at offering tailored regional or contextual analyses, potentially using a different balance of indicators, he said.