Hot academic debate as THE releases latest ranking

The internecine academic ‘conflict’ over league tables flared at last week’s Going Global 2016 conference. The latest Times Higher Education or THE World Reputation Rankings were released, dominated by the planet’s best-endowed universities, while an expert warned against basing policy on “what is essentially a report card on disparities of wealth”.

There was an ‘executive launch’ of the new THE ranking at the British Council’s global higher education conference – held in Africa for the first time, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 3-5 May – as well as a session on the value of rankings in helping countries develop their higher education systems.

There was some shuffling around of the world’s top 10 universities by reputation, but the same institutions as last year are in there. In 2016 the ordering is: Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford, California – Berkeley, Princeton, Yale, Columbia and California Institute of Technology.

However Phil Baty, THE rankings editor, said that outside a ‘super group’ of six universities – four from the United States and two from the United Kingdom – the global higher education world is changing.

While the rise of Asia had become a cliché, “our evidence, from six massive global surveys over six years, including the views of more than 80,000 scholars, proves that the balance of power in higher education and research is slowly shifting from the West to the East”.

Agree to disagree?

The majority of academics – many of whom are after all implicated in producing rankings, especially in reputational surveys – now appear to agree that league tables can be useful and are an important tool for benchmarking (especially research) excellence.

At a packed and lively Going Global rankings session on 4 May Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, policy advisor for the Higher Education Authority and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit in Ireland, said that in a globalised world, rankings matter.

Rankings work as a benchmarking tool but not as a policy driver, said the international expert. “The focus needs to be on the overall system – what are you trying to achieve? Why would you use indicators set by someone else to determine your national priorities? You must focus on what is meaningful, rather than just focus on counting what is accessible.”

“The big concern with rankings is when they become a policy driver, from what is essentially a report card on disparities of wealth,” Hazelkorn said, and added: We should be looking at building world-class systems of higher education, not world-class universities.”

Ranking organisations say they provide a valuable service to students and parents making higher education choices, and to universities by providing tools that help them compete on the world stage.

At Going Global, Baty argued that for Africa, international benchmarking would enable the development of a continent-wide infrastructure for universities. THE published its first Africa ‘snapshot’ ranking last year, and a second ranking a couple of weeks ago.

“Africa has many pressing priorities that current global, research-focused university rankings do not address. But acting on these challenges while also nurturing a necessarily select group of world-class, globally focused universities need not be mutually exclusive.”

Baty said there was not “one single, correct model of excellence”. However, current world rankings were in harmony with the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a continental framework for development.

Dr Gerald Wangenge-Ouma, director of institutional planning at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, worries about the excellence question. He believes rankings should be used by universities to improve – and should also support stability and excellence in higher education.

“The big question is what kind of excellence? Do we have a one-size-fits-all definition of excellence? Excellence cannot be understood in isolation, it has to be understood in the context of the country where the university operates.”

South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande agreed that there were dangers in using rankings outside of their context.

“We must aim to achieve excellence in South African universities. But we must achieve excellence in a way that is good for the developmental priorities of our country. We achieve excellence by seeking solutions to the challenges that face a developing country.”

The ranking

The THE World Reputation Rankings are drawn from the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey, which was conducted this year between January and March and elicited 10,323 responses from 133 countries.

It targeted experienced published scholars for views on teaching and research excellence in their fields at universities they are familiar with. The scores are based on the number of times an institution is cited by scholars as being the best in their field.

According to a THE release, the reputation rankings are supplemented by research publication data drawn from the Elsevier Scopus database, the world’s largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed academic literature.

The United States dominates the ranking, with 43 universities in the top 100. There is bad news for the United Kingdom, which has 10 universities in the list after two universities – Bristol and Durham – dropped out of the top 100.

Seven UK universities are ranked lower this year than last year. “Even the country’s most prestigious institutions have slipped, with the universities of Cambridge and Oxford each dropping two places to fourth and fifth place respectively,” said Baty.

He suggested that higher education funding cuts and immigration measures constraining international students and scholars might be impacting on the global reputation of British universities.

Asia climbed from 10 universities in the reputation ranking in 2015 to 17 this year, with the University of Tokyo highest at number 12. “China breaks into the top 20 for the first time with Tsinghua University placing 18th. Peking University takes a respectable 21st place,” THE reported.

Europe’s mixed success this year is largely a consequence of the strong progress made by Asian universities.

Four out of five institutions from the Netherlands dropped in the ranking while Denmark and Finland – which both had one university in last year’s ranking – are no longer in the top 100. Germany got six universities in the top 90 but four of its institutions dropped down the list.

“Sweden has two universities in the top 100 for the first time since 2013, up from a single representative last year. France has had a strong performance with five French universities making the top 100 this year and INSEAD making its first appearance.”

The THE release cites Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education at King’s College London, as saying that Asia’s rising performance is due to growth in university systems and “more being known among those giving a view".

“We’ve had a highly Anglo-Saxon view of higher education for many years and that can’t be sustained for much longer.”

Photo credit: Harvard University