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US: Rankings can trigger innovation, new study finds

Much has been written about the pitfalls of ranking systems and their negative impacts on universities. A new study of four countries with high-profile rankings - Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan - is more upbeat. The Institute for Higher Education Policy in the US argues that nuanced approaches to rankings may prompt institutions to work in innovative and more productive ways.

Rankings, says the IHEP report published last Thursday, can "trigger a shift of institutional resources for such productive uses as faculty profile, research collection and analysis, and student learning outcomes. These changes can also be integrated into broader strategic planning initiatives to change national and international higher education policy contexts."

Impact of College Rankings on Institutional Decision Making: Four country case studies is based on interviews with key institutional stakeholders in the four countries and is the second issue brief in a three-part series on national and international ranking systems, supported by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education.

The report points out that higher education rankings are a global phenomenon, with several international rankings as well as national rankings in more than 40 countries. While many in higher education question the goals, uses and outcomes of rankings, the IHEP believes it important also to understand the ways institutions use rankings to inform their work.

"It is our hope that institutions will consider the strategies used in other countries to re-examine the positive and negative ways rankings are influencing their work," says Dr Michelle Asha Cooper, IHEP's President.

The case studies suggest that institutions, despite their different contexts, respond similarly to rankings. "Particularly when they are focusing on competition and modernisation, institutions seek to shore up areas that relate directly to ranking indicators," says the brief.

"When institutions are highly ranked the rankings prompt outreach to potential faculty and students alike. In some cases, rankings can trigger a shift of institutional resources to non-productive uses. However, they can also provide evidence of institutional effectiveness and make the case for additional government funding."

The IHEP brief outlines valid criticisms of rankings and highlights how they have promoted institutions to explore new and productive approaches to faculty, research and teaching which "might suggest new uses for rankings at US institutions and those in other countries".

They key findings include:

* Improved data-based decision making. Rankings can prompt institutional discussions about what constitutes success and how the institution can better document and report that success, says the brief.

* Greater participation in discussions about measuring institutional success. Rankings can encourage institutions to move beyond internal conversations to participate in broader national and international discussions about new ways of capturing and reporting indicators of success.

* Improved teaching and learning practices. While case study institutions point to changing practices that alter input indicators - increasing selectivity, favouring research over teaching, and strengthening the faculty profile - a umber of institutions also report changes to practices directly related to student learning and success.

* Identification and replication of model programmes. Institutions should be open to using rankings to identify and share best practices, the study says.

* Increased institutional collaboration. Rankings are often seen as instigating competition among institutions, but the case studies suggest they also prompt collaboration. Universities seek out new, especially international, partners for research and student exchange, within countries to build "networks of excellence", or to build their global visibility.

"Another finding of the study is that all four countries focused on the issue of attracting (or retaining) foreign students. This is just one aspect of the competitive nature of global higher education," says the issue brief.

"US institutions have paid less attention to global rankings, but this may change if other countries are successful in their efforts to create world-class universities and attract the highest achieving students and faculty."

The report also cautions about negative impacts of rankings and urges institutions to work to mitigate them. A major concern is "the potential for rankings-influenced decision-making to undermine college access for disadvantaged student populations".

Other concerns include over-emphasis on research, widening the ratio between full-time and adjunct academics, "substituting improvement of key rankings variables for comprehensive, institution-generated strategic planning", and increasing the funding of world-class institutions at the expense of others that help to deliver national goals.

The IHEP brief concludes that because rankings are entrenched, it is important to determine how they can be better used: "If rankings are used judiciously and in combination with other tools, they can be a starting point for institutions that are seeking new approaches to competition and accountability."
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