Manufacturing internationalisation of higher education

Times Higher Education or THE has not shied away from experimenting with alternative approaches to university rankings. It has made a virtue of the art of calibrating concept, form and shape. One must commend THE for such endeavours. The latest ranking released on 1 February of the 'world’s most international universities 2017' is a case in point.

The list of the world’s 150 most international universities in 2017 differs radically to that published in 2016. It was radical in two critical aspects:
  • THE introduced a fourth dimension: A ratio of international votes to domestic votes that institutions received in THE’s annual academic reputation survey, accounting for 25% of the overall score. It retained, equally weighted, the three previously used metrics (international co-authorship, ratio of international to domestic students and the ratio of international staff).

  • • Institutions need to have received at least 100 votes in the academic reputation survey (of which at least 50 are from their home country).
Of the 200 institutions listed in 2016, only 49 are in the 2017 ranking, although the number of institutions listed dropped from 200 to 150. This is understandable because a condition for eligibility was that institutions not only needed to be included in the top 500 of the THE World University Rankings, but were also required to have at least 100 votes in the academic reputation survey.

Big changes

The additional dimension eliminated many institutions with strong performance in the categories of volume of international students and academic staff as well as international co-authorship.

For example, Australia had 24 institutions listed in 2016, but only five in 2017. Institutions such as Curtin, RMIT and Wollongong universities with campuses in overseas locations and offshore partnership delivery were omitted. The United Kingdom had 64 institutions listed in 2016, but only 13 remained in 2017.

The 2016 edition included institutions from 28 different countries compared to 22 in 2017. The United States has 64 institutions included in 2017, but only nine in 2016. The fact that results from the academic reputation survey are used, and weighted to the advantage of domestic responses, increased considerably the likelihood that universities from the United States (notorious for their inward-looking approach) would be included.

While Qatar University and the University of Luxembourg were ranked first and second respectively in 2016, they dropped out of the 2017 ranking. They were replaced by the Swiss institutions ETH Zurich and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which were previously ranked seventh and fourth respectively in 2016. The University of Hong Kong was lucky to remain in third place in both years.

Research reputation bias

This year’s edition of the world’s most international universities is fundamentally a list that reinforces the view that sandstone, comprehensive, research-intensive and well-resourced universities not only prevail, but are assured higher standing in global university rankings.

Arguably, THE’s list is not about which institutions are the most international or internationalised, but rather it is a list made through the lens of research reputation, with a selective funnel view of internationalisation.

Many of the institutions that have excelled in transnational, cross border education delivery and academic mobility exchanges are not necessarily the most research-intensive institutions but rather institutions that saw an opportunity to expand abroad.

Many of the universities listed in THE’s 2017 edition, while strong in the proportion of international votes to domestic votes, are not leaders in other dimensions (number of international students and academics and international co-authorship).

For example, Johns Hopkins, Purdue and Strasbourg universities rank in the 201-250 band in the international category in THE’s 2016-17 World University Rankings, but they rank in the top 50 in the most international list in 2017. Their inclusion is due to them receiving a greater share of votes in the academic reputation survey compared to institutions excluded due to fewer votes.

In the 2016 list, it did not make sense that Qatar and Luxembourg universities excelled. THE had to make changes to its 2017 edition. Clearly THE pondered for a while how to manufacture a new approach to rate what it deems to be the most international universities (whatever way that may be defined).

Being a rankings fanatic, I would not be surprised if THE made the final cut days before its official release. By making use of responses from the academic reputation survey, THE’s list veered towards research reputation rather than ‘most international’.

Weighting choices

THE must have pondered hard about universities that ranked high in 2016 but were excluded in 2017, such as Nanyang Technological, Maastricht and Curtin universities. THE could have given more weight to international authorship and a reduced weight to responses to the academic reputation survey, which overwhelmingly tends to favour elite and comprehensive institutions.

THE could have also introduced a regional filter to weigh the ‘international’ strength of academic responses. The demographic spread of institutions listed in 2017 unfortunately favours the United States and Europe, including the United Kingdom, at the expense of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. There is not a single African university in the 2017 edition.

Gathering of data is now underway for the various world university rankings in what is promising to be yet another year of rankings furore. In an earlier commentary, I invited readers to reflect on the uses of data in terms of power, legitimacy, transparency, relevance and influence on higher education and its impact on society. This latest ranking certainly gives more food for thought.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research, at RMIT University, Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. He is a member of the advisory board to the QS World University Rankings.