How do university rankings maintain their influence?

University rankings are routinely raised as a concern in higher education. There appears to be a widespread view that vice-chancellors and other managers are universally concerned about the next rankings’ release.

Their publication is now accompanied by increasingly high profile events such as the Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit. This year’s event, held from 3-5 September at King’s College London, featured some very influential people in higher education indeed.

One of the big puzzles is how these rankings can be so influential given the relative scepticism with which they are perceived by academics. The same set of university leaders who express dismay at rankings’ shortcomings are also those whose institutions actively engage in the rankings exercise.

Referring to a popular United States-based university ranking, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, is said to have observed that “(i)t’s one of the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that’s supposedly populated by the best minds in the country… is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine”.

Why do academics, teachers and university managers work hard to please external judges whose judgment they do not believe?


The answer to this puzzle is manifold. One of the important reasons is probably linked to the need for more public accountability in higher education.

Accusations that universities function as cartels or do not provide value for money leave them vulnerable to public critique. Governments, employers and, of course, students and their parents understandably want universities to deliver quality. This is a powerful motive for universities to submit themselves to external scrutiny.

University rankings are one of the ways that universities can show their concern for delivering good research and teaching. However, they are not the only way universities can respond to the need to act responsibly. There are other quality assurance systems in place. However, the fact that rankings continue to be a large part of how universities present themselves and their quality to the public highlights the very real and effective work that ranking organisations do.

Rankers work hard to establish and embed their ranking instruments in the higher education sector. And some of them are getting much better at what they do.

University rankings have acquired a certain kind of expertise – a ‘weak’ expertise – in higher education. This expertise is part of the answer to the puzzle of rankings’ influence. Their expertise is weak because it is constantly contested: there are many critiques over the technical methods involved as well as the ways in which they are used. But, despite these critiques, rankings are ‘strong’ in their consequences.

Rankers can strengthen their expertise by developing ‘stronger’ methods and more reliable data. For a ranking expert, it helps to have a more credible ranking instrument. Some rankings are understood to be ‘better’ than others. The Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities or ARWU, for instance, claims it is more objective because it relies only on objective and third party-generated data.

Investing in rankings

To maintain their positions in the crowded rankings marketplace, each of the big three organisations – Times Higher Education, QS and ARWU – does a lot of work to shore up its ranking expertise. To illustrate: the Times Higher Education has invested heavily in its capacity to generate and analyse its own data.

QS continues to build up a strong set of products and services in the international student market. Even the relatively conservative ARWU has expanded its range of activities. In their own ways, each organisation is shoring up their expertise with their target audiences.

However, a particular strength that needs to be highlighted is the way that rankers are increasingly able to influence discussions through curating the spaces in which university leaders meet and discuss issues of ‘performance management’. Rankers are becoming better and better at organising conferences for thought-leaders and policy-makers in higher education.

At these conferences and summits, rankers claim to provide the venue for the discussion of the future of higher education or the space in which to share ideas about how to build world-class universities. What goes on at the World Academic Summit – both on the stage and on the sidelines – as well as at other conferences like it, should be a matter of concern and interest for all those interested in higher education development.

Miguel Antonio Lim is a lecturer of education and international development at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. Previously he held a European Union Marie Curie Fellowship studying the industry of university rankings.