Are university rankings too powerful?

A new report by the European University Association, or EUA, on global university rankings confirms what most higher education leaders will have known for some time – the dramatic growth in the number and scope of rankings tables in recent years has begun to shape the ways in which higher education is developing worldwide.

The EUA report, Global Universities and their Impact – Report II, says that besides increasing the pressure on universities – and the risk of overburdening them – the rankings “are also now beginning to impact on public policy making”.

The new publication was released at the association’s annual conference at Ghent University in Belgium last Friday.

A consequence of the growing importance of rankings is that the EUA is launching a new pan-European project designed to study the issue in detail and to provide recommendations on how rankings can promote institutional development while also identifying potential pitfalls that universities should avoid.

The EUA said that world university rankings now influenced the development of immigration policies in some countries, played a part in determining the choice of university partner institutions, and affected the way foreign qualifications were recognised.

While the main global university rankings still focused principally on the research functions of universities, they were “still not able to do justice to research carried out in the area of arts, humanities and social sciences”, said the EUA.

It added that the bibliometric indicators used still had “biases and flaws”.

The main limitations of rankings “remain most apparent in efforts to measure teaching performance”, the EUA said, although there were signs that some rankings providers had “started to draw attention to the biases and flaws in the data underpinning rankings, and thus to the dangers of misusing rankings”.

The new, more clearly targeted rankings project will be carried out this year and next, and a report with recommendations will be published at the end of 2014 or early in 2015.

The EUA said that while many institutions had reservations about the methodologies used by the rankings compilers, there was a growing recognition that rankings and classifications were here to stay, and many felt the need to respond.

“Recent research on institutional responses further shows that despite the widely acknowledged methodological shortcomings, rankings and classifications have a growing impact on institutional decision-making and actions.

“Shedding light on the ways in which universities respond to rankings and other transparency tools – consciously or unconsciously – would be the first step towards identifying opportunities for using rankings in beneficial ways for institutional development,” the association said.

The rankings report will be developed by the EUA in partnership with the Dublin Institute of Technology, the French Rectors’ Conference and the Academic Information Centre in Latvia.