OECD: Worldwide ‘obsession’ with league tables

Higher education institutions worldwide are much more concerned about league tables and ranking systems than expected, an OECD investigation has found. “There appears to be a near obsession with the status and trajectory of the top 100,” a report of the investigation states. This despite the fact that there are 17,000 higher education institutions around the globe.

The remarkable study gives an insight into the impact of league tables and rankings on universities around the world, and shows how their influence is far wider than intended.

They were originally conceived as providing comparative information to key audiences such as students, public opinion and parents. But the survey of leaders and senior managers in more than 200 higher education institutions in 41 countries reveals that the tables and rankings are influencing key policy-making areas such as the classification of institutions and the allocation of funds.

“There is enormous attention given to every league table that is published as well as its quality ranking. And they are taken seriously by students, government and especially by the media,” says the main author of the study, Professor Ellen Hazelkorn from the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Because of this, they have a huge influence on university reputations and thus they promote competition and influence policy-making.”

National league tables have been common since the 1990s but, as higher education has become globalised, the focus has shifted to worldwide university rankings such as those published by the Times Higher Education Supplement, UK, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Among the main findings in the OECD study are:

* 58% of respondents were not happy with their current ranking.
* 70% want to be in the top 10 % nationally.
* 71% want to be in the top 25% internationally.
* 57% believe league tables and rankings are influencing the willingness of other institutions to form partnerships with them.
* 56% have a formal internal mechanism for reviewing their rank order.

Of the latter respondents all but three have taken strategic or academic decisions or action as a result of reviewing their rank.

Hazelkorn found strikingly similar types of actions across institutions. She says university leaders are incorporating the outcomes into their strategic planning mechanisms, reorganising their institutions to achieve higher rankings and, in general, using the results to identify weaknesses.

They are seeking to either resolve institutional problems or eradicate the source, such as hiring more Nobel Prize winners (a criterion in the Shanghai Jiaotong ranking).

In several instances, respondents indicated that either a special investigation team had been appointed or assigned to oversee organisational change, ensure regular “observations of
rankings and methods”, and monitor the performance of peer institutions.

Hazelkorn concludes that those affected by league tables and rankings tend to draw broad brushstroke conclusions. She says they use the results to “reassure” themselves about their collaboration, investment, future employer or university choice while at the same time providing the institution with a rating that can be publicised.

Universities whose ranking is not prestigious often believe their poor rating creates a cycle of disadvantage for them.

Read 'OECD: Consumer concept becomes a policy instrument' by Ellen Hazelkorn in the Features section