Regional strategy needed to counter homogenisation

The global ranking system continues to influence the strategic thinking and valuing of universities. Strengthening that strategic value is essential for universities given the rapid progression of innovation, with the high possibility of disruption to the current model of higher education.

An OECD report published in 1967, with only 21 member countries at the time, stated: “The influence of technological advance is becoming ever more important in many sectors of national activity. While it has until now been most striking in industry and defence, technology is gradually invading many other sectors, such as education, and its direction is becoming a major preoccupation of governments as well as of private enterprise.”

There were a number of measures put forward to address this issue outlined in the report and one that particularly resonates for us today is a more dynamic connection between universities and society.

Universities today are facing disruption. Disruptions have strategic, economic and social ramifications. The pressure for universities to transform is high. Given the changes in the way people now engage in learning, universities cannot exempt themselves from the demand to change.

The ranking process essentially places universities in a global value chain, creating value and shaping networks of relationships with an array of external stakeholders. The role of rankings is not merely to measure and rank institutions, but also to provide a template for identifying potential reform strategies. League tables also influence funding decisions and philanthropy as well as attracting faculty and staff.

Institutions’ strategic value comprises economic capital that is embedded in cultural, social and political values as well as internalised in personal values. The latter reside in stakeholders’ minds as positive when an institution achieves a high ranking and associated prestige; or negative when the ascribed ranking does not equate to a desired cultural, social, political or personal value.

For example, an institution’s prime mission is to serve the educational needs of their immediate community with outstanding impact and innovation. However, this is not reflected adequately in the rankings.

While both strategy and rankings create value for the university, they do so in different ways. University strategy generates value through its operations, with internationalisation as an example of a valued outcome.

The ‘flattening’ of distinctive characteristics

This pursuit of a broader sense of value is paradoxically leading to a ‘denationalisation’ of universities, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, with the emergence of a universal model of higher education.

This approach has decreased the differentiation among universities camouflaging the crucial points of distinction, leading to rivalry by universities in the pursuit of the same goals. Rankings ‘flatten’ the distinctive characteristics of different institutions and relates them to standard measures.

The ranking process positions and places universities, and hence their offerings, in a pecking order so that stakeholders compare one university to another, considering the pros and cons of each so as to choose between them. This is not too dissimilar to what happens with other consumer decision-making, say choosing a restaurant or a hotel; unless consumers are equipped with TripAdvisor or similar, they feel bewildered.

Not only are ranking processes the a priori of competition, they may lead to rendering the university’s offerings relatively unstable as consumers’ preferences are more immediate and less predictable, influencing the demand and supply cycle.

The rankings process comprises both inherent, tacit and apparent assumptions about what matters to universities in a competitive global world and what does not and responds accordingly. In so doing, distinctive attributes and context-specific information of a university risk being systematically edited out, with measures of relevance to a global worldview taking precedence over a regional or national context.

What this suggests is that a ‘regional’ strategy may be a ‘best available’ response to a transnational environment, providing a balance between the extremes of the ‘global’ and ‘multinational’ approaches. A regional approach can both improve integration and accommodate inter-regional differences.

What is the role of universities in their own regions?

Universities should serve as the primary producers and transmitters of innovation in their own regions and focus on local value.

In the 21st century, universities need to strengthen their position and perspective both to co-discover and co-create value beyond the accepted parameters of a university. Instead of keeping their eyes on the ranking speedometer, they need to take a wider view and consider how they can benefit their own regions.

Design thinking, a programme that most universities now offer, is perhaps the better way to address the many challenges we face, and create solutions that are purposeful and targeted towards the specific goals in their region as well as the potential disruptors of a 21st, and dare I say a 22nd, century university.

The same forces identified as the shapers of higher education, such as rankings, the market, resources and government interventions, may be blocking its path to innovation. Is it time that universities learnt from their own teachings as well as their rankings? The world needs new thinking, new ideas and new approaches to face the challenges of tomorrow.

Professor Ann M Brewer is dean of the University of Newcastle, Sydney, Australia. She was speaking last week at QS in Conversation – University Rankings and International Migrant Scholars.