Rankings and accountability in higher education

UNESCO has released a new publication, Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and misuses, which debates the pros and cons of classifying universities. A UNESCO release says the book brings together “the people behind university rankings and their critics to debate the uses and misuses of existing rankings”.

The book arose from the “Global Forum Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and misuses”, the first global consultation on the subject, organised by UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank in May 2011. This brought together researchers, academics, policy analysts, students and institutional leaders.

The release says the book develops many of the issues addressed during that landmark consultation and is the first in a new UNESCO series, Education on the Move, aimed at bringing the latest thinking in education to specialists worldwide.

The book features comments from people on five continents to provide a comprehensive overview of current thinking on the subject and sets out alternative approaches and complementary tools for a new era of transparent and informed use of higher education ranking tables.

It presents two sides to the debate:

1: Rankings purport to measure higher education quality, but:
  • • There are more than 16,000 higher education institutions in the world, and global rankings focus attention on the performance of less than 100 – or less than 1%. The pervasiveness of focusing on the top institutions obscures the fact that the majority of students attend non-elite institutions.
  • • Rankings throw no light on how a nation’s higher education system educates all its students and citizens.
  • • Rankings encourage nations to focus disproportionately on a handful of elites, which could undermine national or regionally strategic priorities and capacity for the knowledge society.
  • • Focus should be on ensuring the system is world class rather than on the performance of the individual ‘world-class university’.
  • • Aligning national priorities to meet the criteria of rankings is an abdication of national sovereignty.
  • • Because national budgets are a zero-sum-game (spending in one area means taking from somewhere else), governments risk subverting other policy objectives in order to conform to indicators designed by others for other purposes.
  • • Disproportionate emphasis on research can undermine teaching and learning.

2: However, rankings can claim achievements in the following areas:
  • • They have acted as a wake-up call about the value and importance of higher education, especially for nations that may not have been investing sufficiently.
  • • They have placed consideration of higher education quality within a wider comparative and international framework, which has challenged self-perceptions of greatness so there is no more room for self-promotion.
  • • With the onslaught of global rankings, the higher education world has become more competitive but also multi-polar. Many more countries are making a contribution to knowledge creation and dissemination.
  • • While rankings do not measure what is meaningful about the quality of higher education, they have drawn our attention to the importance of good quality comparative information about performance and productivity, value for money and return on public investment.
  • • Good quality, international comparative information is essential for underpinning strategic leadership and decision-making at the national and institutional levels.
  • • Comparable information on institutions, teaching and research makes it easier for students and researchers to make informed choices on where and what to study and where to work.
  • • Improved data-based or evidence-based decision-making can prompt discussions about what constitutes success and encourage benchmarking to identify and share best practices.