Could HE rankings be socially transformative?

That global rankings have made an indelible mark on higher education is incontrovertible. Their arrival at the millennium coincided with the acceleration of this phase of globalisation and signalled the transformation of higher education from a local institution into a global actor of geopolitical significance.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Global competitiveness and the multi-polarity of scientific knowledge became unmistakably important. Internationalisation, traditionally seen as a social-cultural experience, became the frontline for the ‘war for talent'. Indicators of investment became powerful drivers of international benchmarking, resource-intensive competition and government policy.

Obsession with the performance of top universities has fostered policies that are accelerating social stratification. At the national level, the pursuit of ‘world-classness’ has led to reshaping systems and priorities. Rankings influence classification and accreditation systems, scholarships, collaborations and immigration, etc. Excellence initiatives, based on ‘picking winners’, are prevalent in more than 30 countries.

Crude estimates put the annual budget per world-class university at approximately US$2 billion. Even for wealthy countries, this strategy requires diverting resources to a few elite institutions, effectively robbing the poor to pay the rich – dubbed the Sheriff of Nottingham model.

But, gauging performance through the lens of top-ranked universities skews our understanding of national performance. It wrongly assumes the ‘system’ is the aggregate of individual institutional performance.

Take the example of Ireland, which has 21 public higher education institutions. On average, around five institutions appear in the top 500 of the three main rankings, equivalent to 22%. In comparison, only 6% of United States institutions appear in these rankings.

Ireland’s top-performing institutions enrol 40% of total Irish higher education students; in stark contrast, US top universities enrol only a tiny minority of total students. Despite spending a smaller percentage of gross domestic product on education than the US, Ireland achieves greater (e)quality across its entire higher education system.

Lessons of Brexit

Single-minded pursuit of rankings has created a schism between local, regional, national and global responsibilities – the implications of which extend beyond higher education itself. UK research suggests the distribution of research funding and the funding model for higher education has widened the privilege gap, not just affecting institutions and their students but undermining the cities and regions in which they reside.

Other research suggests that despite the fact that higher education provides a gateway to personal success, life-satisfaction and better health, the challenges of massification, rising costs and economic change test the capacity of our systems to meet rising individual and societal expectations.

The Brexit vote was strongly shaped by socio-economic, educational and geographic factors. Those voting to remain within the European Union tended to be younger, higher education graduates and professionals, and living in large urban centres, notably London and other metropolitan environs.

There were additional factors influencing the vote in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In contrast, those voting to leave the EU tended to be from disaffected areas, often with higher unemployment levels. One of the key findings emerging from the Brexit vote was the way in which (elite) university cities voted to 'Remain' but their hinterland voted to 'Leave'.

Education is also appearing as a fault line in the US presidential election. Those with the least number of years of education are more likely to support Donald Trump, while those with the most schooling are likely to back Hillary Clinton. Likewise, people with lower geographic mobility, for example, those less likely to have moved around the US or had international experience, are more likely to vote for Trump.

Building a higher education system

So – could rankings encourage excellence in our education systems rather than just in a handful of world-class institutions and lead social transformation?

Rankings are designed around and promote individual institutional performance. As a consequence, their incentives militate against systematic excellence. There is little doubt that rankings have pushed governments to focus more attention on higher education, but they have also fostered a media-frenzied obsession with measuring the wrong things.

And it is not evident that the results have been beneficial for society as a whole. Prestige and reputation have become dominant drivers rather than the pursuance of equity and diversity – of our institutions and our students. By concentrating benefit on elite universities, rankings simply increase the distance between ‘the best and the rest’.

Research excellence is vital, but that quest does not contradict undertaking responsible research with societal impact. This opens up opportunities for the academy to engage directly with problems and issues on their doorsteps.

Rankings purport to tell us something meaningful about the quality and effectiveness of education by focusing on the attributes of elite students. But the top universities represent only a tiny fraction of today’s growing and increasingly more diverse student population.

In the US, 58% of students are 22 years or older – the ‘new normal’. Internationally, the Top 100 represent only about 0.5% of higher education institutions or 0.4% of students worldwide. Similarly, European higher education institutions in the Times Higher Education top 100 represent fewer than 1% of all higher education institutions in EU-28 countries and Switzerland and just over 4% of all enrolments.

In the aftermath of Brexit, more questions must be asked about the role of higher education and how the gulf between pursuance of global recognition and greater civic and regional engagement can be mended.

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn is policy advisor to the Higher Education Authority (Ireland), emeritus professor and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. She is also a member of the advisory board and management committee, and international co-investigator of the Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education, London. Email: Her new book Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education is to be published by Routledge on 17 October 2016.