Will university rankings adjust to our uncertain times?

It does not happen often that authors of practically all prominent international and national academic rankings, with some like Times Higher Education (THE) and QS competing against each other, meet at the same time in one (though virtual) place. However, it indeed happened at the IREG 2020 conference entitled “University rankings in the time of uncertainty” in late October.

Rankings have become a part of academic reality and, when this reality begins to change, rankings must follow suit. Hence, the ranking elite took the opportunity to discuss the possible impact COVID-19 may have on both international and national rankings.

Gero Federkeil of U-Multirank posed a provoking question: “Is this still the time for rankings to fuel competition? Is it still right to ask: ‘Who rules?’,” when, as he put it: “Higher education institutions have more important tasks than providing data to rankings.”

Though the others did not see the future of rankings in such bleak colours, believing that rankings are here to stay, they agreed that changes in the rankings are unavoidable.

The hampering of international student and academic staff mobility by COVID-19 will most likely diminish interest in global rankings. At the same time, national and specialised (by subject) regional ranking will gain importance.

For the very same reason, indicators linked to internationalisation of the student body and academic staff may lose some of their weight in the methodology used by rankings. Instead, new indicators related to university presence in the internet will appear. Here, Isidro Aguillo from Spain, who published the first internet-based Webometrics ranking as far back as 2004, stands out as a forerunner.

Aside from those caused by COVID, other changes are coming to rankings, too. Several ranking organisations concentrate their efforts on finding a way to tackle the issue of a university’s responsibility to the community, to society. The Moscow Three University Missions Ranking led by Dmitry Grishankov was the first serious attempt to advance this issue. A frontal approach to the third mission has been initiated by Phil Baty in the recently launched THE Impact Rankings based on the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The third mission gains momentum in rankings not just because of COVID. Ever growing concern over climate change cannot be ignored in the evaluation of universities and their contribution to society. Discussions at the IREG conference demonstrated that society expects more from ranking organisations. It is good to know that Harvard is great, but to many, the contribution of a small university to the local community matters no less.

The pandemic has brought havoc to university life, both on the teaching and research levels, but “is it the end of [the] university as we know [it]?” asked Hans de Wit of Boston College, and answered his own question: “University will not disappear; students and faculty want to go back to class, to interact, but it will be impossible to go back to what it was.”

He added: “We will need more international research cooperation on every aspect of our life in serving society, addressing climate change, issues fundamental to the future of our society.”

Interestingly, on the latter he was seconded by Guo Fu, vice-rector of Beijing University of Technology, who sees a need for “synergy in international cooperation to solve global problems”.

Once COVID disappears, whenever it happens, the online provision will stay and be a solid element of teaching and learning. After all, young people navigate through cyber space with the ease some of their older teachers could not match.

Online technology will not only change the teaching process and make it more competitive (for lecturers), observed Ben Sowter of QS, but as a disruptive force “will create opportunity to accelerate profound changes in the organisation and introduction of innovation”.

All this, for sure, will impact rankings, but the effect will be time-delayed. It may take three or more years before the changes can be seen in the rankings.

Perception of rankings will likely be shifting in various directions. Prospective students double hit, once by travel restrictions and then by a deteriorating economic situation, will be inclined to pay more attention to national and regional rankings than global.

Stanislaw Kistryn of Jagiellonian University observed: “National university rankings … contribute to proper functioning and modernisation of the higher education systems in various countries, as well as to proper evolution of well-managed universities.”

Experts such as Richard Holmes predict that Asia, and China in particular, where universities are perceived drivers of growth and technological advancement of the nation, will favour rankings based strictly on research.

For other parts of the world, Europe, North America, or Brazil – said Alex Usher – social inequality is becoming a bigger problem than growth, and hence rankings will likely shift their attention to teaching and social responsibility.

The THE Impact Rankings seem to be going in this direction. However, warned Holmes, “intensive data collection puts a burden on universities. Universities in places like Africa will not allocate resources to report data”.

Everybody knows that publication in scientific journals constitutes one of the main pillars of any ranking. This issue surfaced at the IREG conference, but from a different angle. Several speakers pointed out that COVID has placed young women researchers in a particularly disadvantaged position.

M’hamed el Aisati, a vice president at Elsevier, observed that “the corona[virus] crisis has substantially impacted on female scientists, and especially those with kids are disproportionately affected”. Michael Matlosz of EuroScience pointed out that, during COVID, female researchers must share time between research and family duties. The same observation was made by Samile Andréa de Souza Vanz from Brazil.

Several university rankings were discussed in detail at the conference, including eight international rankings: THE, ARWU, QS, US News Global, Webometrics, Leiden, the Three University Missions and U-Multirank, and four national rankings: Best University Ranking (UK), Folha (Brazil), CHE (Germany) and Perspektywy University Ranking (Poland).

Originally, the conference was to be held in China and hosted by Beijing University of Technology (BJUT) but COVID-19 forced an online format and it was aired from the studio of Perspektywy Education Foundation in Warsaw where IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence has its secretariat.

Referring to the broad representation of ranking organisations at the conference, Luiz Claudio Costa, president of IREG, said: “It proves that IREG is an independent neutral forum that embraces all interested in the quality of rankings, and quality of higher education in general.”

At the conference, Isidro Aguillo, head of Cybermetrics Lab at the Spanish National Research Council and the author of the Webometrics ranking, was awarded the IREG Honorary Medal.

In laudatio, Waldemar Siwinski, vice president of IREG, called Aguillo “the most far-sighted visionary among rankers who understood, years earlier than others, how important the internet imprint of a university is for its international visibility and reputation”.

Waldemar Siwinski is president of the Perspektywy Education Foundation, Poland, and vice president of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence. Kazimierz Bilanow is an associate at Perspektywy Education Foundation.