Rankings – Power, influence, university reconstruction

With Times Higher Education officially launching the World Reputation Rankings on 5 March 2014, it is time to look deeper into the utility and contribution of the numerous league tables that have been developed over the past decade.

How do these rankings contribute to the higher education community and to society in general? What are their pitfalls and do we really need so many?

Proliferation of league tables

The Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings and the Quacquarelli Symonds or QS World University Rankings have become the leading benchmarks for universities across the globe.

Given their success in the league table provision industry, THE and QS have contributed to the proliferation of university rankings – especially from 2010 onwards.

We are now seeing league tables based on faculty, subject rankings, geography and economic grouping – for example the BRICS and emerging economies rankings, with BRICS countries being Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. There is also institutional age – for instance the QS Top 50 under 50 – and now soon institutional reputation.

Furthermore, the European Union has embarked on developing its own university ranking, U-Multirank, taking a multi-dimensional approach.

The proliferation of university league tables, both across providers and by the same providers, significantly complicates the higher education environment. It sets increasing and multiple benchmarks and sparks growing competition, complexity and confusion across the entire higher education sector.

Power and influence

Although intended to be a constructive measure for comparing universities across the globe, league tables have emerged as a tool of immense power and influence in international higher education.

Being systematically designed for comparison, they have become a central focus of the global higher education sector, and the indicators used are increasingly the focus of universities worldwide, especially those with the ambition to be ‘world-class’.

In part, the motivation that they provide universities aiming for the prestige and status of being ‘world-class’ can be an impetus for institutions to improve their performance to reach global standards.

However, what is the world standard? Do the indicators used in such rankings significantly measure what it means to be a university: teaching, research and community service? Is there really a need to have such a diversity of league tables? Or is it now simply becoming business as usual?

In spite of the usual rhetoric of university leaders that they do not care about rankings, it is a fact that the power and influence of league tables have increased over the past decade, especially with the establishment of the global higher education market and the increasing popularity of cross-border education.

It is common to see rankings positions prominently displayed on university websites, in brochures and other advertising materials with the possible objective of projecting an image of quality and prestige.

This enhances the commercialisation of higher education and the notion of students as consumers and a source of income, it brings the increased possibility of research grants and also burnishes universities’ pull factor for key academics.

University rankings providers need to be more transparent and accountable. The power and influence they have on the higher education sector should be wielded responsibly as they are not only a stakeholder but also have the ability to reconstruct the entire sector.

Reconstruction of the university

With the advent and proliferation of league tables, universities and other stakeholders may be confused by the different sets of indicators used in the numerous rankings, be they at the global, regional, national, faculty or subject level.

The university mission tends to deviate from one focused on the student, faculty and the community to one focused on the prestige, market value and image of the institution itself in the guise of pursuit of excellence, albeit one based on indicators used by the league tables.

As such, the necessity of multiple, competing and even complementary university rankings seems to defeat their systematic purpose of comparing university excellence in key criteria.

Universities and rankings providers should keep in mind that the essence of a university cannot be quantified by indicators, but by their successful nurturing of future leaders, citizens and members of society in national, regional and global spaces.

It is not the ratio of faculty to students that makes learning successful or moulds students into global citizens and future leaders. Nor do research funding, campus space and libraries necessarily ensure a contribution to the learning process or the betterment of society.

It is the people within the university committed to its core mission of teaching, research and community service that makes a university excel – no matter how high or low it ranks in the league tables.

League tables should be used constructively to enhance core teaching, learning, research and community service. They should help to ensure the nurturing of students and faculty, and most of all they should incorporate the traditional missions of universities rather than enhancing commercialisation, competition for prestige and the market value of institutions.

In fact, a ‘world-class’ university is one that contributes to sustainable development of the world through the provision, mentoring and facilitation of personal development and through inculcating the responsibilities of global citizenship in its students, faculty and communities.

* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.


The movement globally of universities as a business first, research institution second and place of education third is terribly sad.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page