Rankings and a system of endless competition

Universities around the world increasingly compete with one another for resources. Within countries this competition occurs through funding mechanisms. Especially prominent is the international trend away from block grant funding to the competitive allocation of research funds.

Competition also occurs internationally as universities vie for the best research staff and students on what is approaching a worldwide basis. Such wide-scale competition can produce large gaps between winners and losers.

Leading global research universities stand to gain from such competition, but for all universities there are risks involved in competition because of the potential for failure and associated loss of resources.

University rankings

Over the past decade much attention has been given to prominent world university league tables such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Academic Rankings of World Universities, or ARWU, produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

These and other worldwide rankings intrigue policy-makers, university leaders and media organisations because they permit cross-national assessment of university status and position.

While such rankings attract substantial interest they are also open to intense criticism. Complete accounts of the criticisms are beyond our scope here; nonetheless, prominent concerns include prioritising research over teaching, the idealisation of a single organisational form and bias towards universities in English-speaking countries.

We share some of these concerns. However, because these rankings have become de facto arbiters of global research university status, we believe that it is also important to explore the policy and administrative implications of rankings.

Global rankings, we propose, facilitate global-level competition among universities because they compare universities in different countries and cast some as more excellent than others. In other words, universities are able to compete internationally with one another in part because they are directly compared via rankings.

Global rankings also facilitate competition by establishing the dimensions along which universities are assessed. The ways in which universities are compared to one another – what it is that a ranking body values or ignores – therefore become the parameters of competition.

The result could be that the rankings legitimate certain arenas of university operations, such as peer-reviewed publications in English-language outlets, while ignoring others. Moreover, policy-makers and university administrators may look to global rankings for cues as to how to achieve enhanced global status.

A study of rankings

In order to explore these propositions we conducted quantitative analyses for a study recently published in the journal Minerva that used data collected by the US Department of Education, the US National Science Foundation and the ARWU itself to estimate the factors that predict the ARWU position among US universities.

We selected the ARWU because it is among the most prominent and influential global ranking systems and because an expansive research profile is a key characteristic of global research universities.

We included US universities because they dominate the top places in the ARWU and other ranking systems. The US research university model is often emulated in other countries, and there is comprehensive, reliable data available. Both descriptive and regression analyses indicated that ARWU position was often associated with high levels of inputs.

Larger universities that emphasised science and engineering, or S&E, and that derived greater financial support for research from the US federal government tended to fare well in the rankings. By contrast, smaller universities with lower levels of S&E emphasis and federal research support fared less well.

We do not interpret our results as evidence that the ARWU or other global rankings systems cause universities to change their missions. Rather, we suggest the somewhat narrower implication that global rankings may help to legitimate existing inequality of inputs within a national system.

That is, by conferring status in the form of high ARWU scores on those few universities that receive the majority of the US’s nationally-derived financial resources, this league table may make a high level of inequality among universities seem normal. Such normalisation could in turn allow policy-makers to rationalise the ever-greater concentration of resources in a few universities.

Legitimating input inequality

A possible, though by no means certain, by-product of legitimating input inequality could be a decline in efficiency across the national system. Other researchers, such as Halffmann and Leydesdorff have found that global rankings are not associated with growing output inequality.

Taken together with our own results, this suggests that resources may be concentrated in a declining number of universities even as outputs grow broadly.

The hypothetical worst-case scenario under such conditions would be the declining efficiency of a few high-status universities that consume many resources, while a large number of institutions attempt to increase output production while facing intense competition for scarce resources.

To be sure, there are compelling reasons to maintain some level of input inequality among universities. Multi-purpose research universities are simply more expensive to operate than are single-mission organisations. We do not contest this well-known tenet of university governance.

What we do suggest, however, is that policy-makers and administrators should make governance decisions deemed best for their own local and national contexts. While global relevance is likely an important policy objective for many systems, it is not clear that this should be defined the same way in all contexts.

The pursuit of global status ought to be balanced with other priorities because resources devoted explicitly to improving global ranking position cannot be used to meet other objectives.

Global league tables seem to reward input inequality with high status for a few universities. We suggest that the ultimate end of such status is not necessarily an improved national higher education system, however, but a global system in which competition is endless.

* Brendan Cantwell is a faculty member in higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University and Barrett J Taylor is assistant professor, counselling and higher education, at the University of North Texas in the United States.