New ideas in the face of rankings and ‘world class’ fatigue

For decades many universities have focused on global rankings and their progeny, the concept of world-class universities (WCUs), to drive academic planning and resource allocation – often under pressure from ministries to climb up this or that commercial ranking.

In turn, rankings companies have built profitable businesses, including consulting services on how to ‘improve’ research productivity shaped by their matrices. This has all been accompanied by a cavalcade of books and articles that reinforce the value of rankings and that boast of successful strategies.

In this myopic race, many of these universities have lost their way, diminishing their larger mission and role in society and hindering innovation in areas such as student learning and creative forms of research that benefit stakeholders.

A devaluing of rankings

Over the last year and more, however, there has been a significant movement by ministries and universities to devalue university and college rankings.

A number of high profile law schools in the United States recently announced they will no longer participate in one of the commercial rankings; Dutch universities have begun a move away from using rankings and citation indexes for evaluating university performance, and that of their faculty; China, home of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), also known as the Shanghai Ranking, has done something similar in its recent ministerial edicts.

Some universities, admittedly usually brand-name institutions with previously established international profiles, are refusing to participate in rankings – meaning they are not supplying information requested by commercial rankers, many of whom find some way to find basic information, like the number of faculty, to keep them in their ranking products.

At the same time, the COVID pandemic acted as a disrupter, with the rush to online courses and a dissipation of the normal life of universities. In some form the war in Ukraine and increased international tension have also brought the international strategies of universities into question or at least triggered a reconsideration of them.

All of these factors provide an opportunity to rethink and broaden the mission and activities of universities in much of the world.

I want to advocate, as I have in the past, that universities should explore alternative models, including what I have called the New Flagship University (NFU) – an aspirational model which combines both familiar notions of a university’s teaching, research and public service mission with innovations that seek both internal reforms and expanded engagement with the societies they are intended to serve.

In this quest, international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity are not ignored, but are framed as only one goal towards supporting a university’s productivity and larger social purpose – not as an end unto themselves.

At the same time, it is important to note that there is a diversity of higher education institutions and, to use the lexicon of markets, providers. That diversity will grow in the post-pandemic era in reaction to student demand, changing labour markets and other factors.

The flagship model is for one part of that market: comprehensive universities that have or desire a leading role in national higher education systems, and that desire to expand their social and economic impact.

Impact of rankings

There are two main roles for global rankings of universities beside generating income for the rankers: first, and largely the case in the United States, as consumer guides for prospective students; and second, as indicators for ministries of the quality and productivity of a nation’s universities that, over the last two decades, has bled into an often dominant force in resource allocation and shaping the behaviours of university management and faculty.

The good thing is that the rankings race, and the response of ministries, has led to incentives that have reshaped the internal culture of many national university systems and institutions that historically had weak internal quality and accountability policies and practices.

The bad thing is that it has induced practices and behaviours linked to a vague model of global competitiveness and are a poorly designed marker of prestige that is not in the best interests of the nations they serve. Most starkly, this includes demands for faculty and graduate students intent on an academic career to publish in recognised international academic journals – feeding a startling growth in their number, citation inflation and gaming to move up this or that ranking.

The fact is that citations are declining as a meaningful indicator of institutional and individual research productivity. Most citation inflation is simply the result of the markets and an internalised academic behaviour that seeks legitimacy via a blizzard of publications and induces a predilection for often needless citations.

One can barely read any journal article in the social sciences anymore without facing a barrage of meaningless citations, often on the most mundane of observations.

Perhaps most significantly, the number of journals and journal articles keeps outstripping the estimated science output, in part accelerated by the proliferation of online journals. In addition, the impact calculations used by rankers assume that the pool of journals from which citations emerge will remain constant over time. But the pool is rapidly expanding, and with it the number of citations.

There is also gaming by universities and researchers, and by journal editors. One example: an article in Science notes a scandal related to Chinese scientists, most of whom are under great pressure to produce publications, who contract with “article mills” to produce journal-quality manuscripts. “A growing black market is peddling fake research papers, fake peer reviews and even entirely fake research results to anyone who will pay,” it states.

Studies have also shown that some journal editors, and their boards, encourage authors to cite articles in the same journal they are publishing in – in turn driving up the journal’s impact score based, you guessed it, on citations.

A proliferation of commercial efforts

Always in search of profits, we have also seen a proliferation of commercial efforts to slice and dice the market to create new rankings. Where once there was focus on data collected internationally and with some reliability, more and more rankings depend on institutions providing information.

New rankings of ‘social impact’, or meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, are hopelessly flawed in their methodology; many, if not most, universities are gaming the data. Many of these rankings rely on written responses by universities on the virtues of their programmatic efforts that, one might suspect, could lead to exaggeration and embellishment.

As noted, some universities even contract with commercial rankers as part of their strategy to improve their ranking, with evidence of a clear conflict of interest, as Igor Chirikov notes in an article in Higher Education. Many nation-states have also got into the game, creating their own rankings when their leading national universities did not do well in the commercial global rankings.

At one time I argued that the way to diminish the influence of the dominant three or so global rankings that influence ministries, something that is now deeply ingrained in many university policies and behaviours, was to encourage the generation of more rankings. And indeed, the ranking industry continues to look for ways to monetise the data they collect and expand their consulting services.

The thought was that this would diffuse the ranking market, with universities claiming to be in the top 20 or whatever in this or that ranking, leading to a decline in their credibility.

It is clear today that ranking products will remain consumer guides for students, and an influence on the global movement of academic talent. But as influencers of university strategies, policies and behaviours, they are thankfully on the decline. That also means a corresponding decline in the notion of a world-class university (WCU) that blatantly ignores the many important roles and activities universities need to pursue to be productive and impactful institutions.

An alternative model

How might many leading national universities pivot forcefully toward a more aspiring raison d’etre?

While the forces of globalisation on academic life and elsewhere are powerful and generally positive in creating a global science system, as well as marvellous supply chains, geography still matters. Universities are anchor institutions, tied to their locality, and are, or should be, powerful engines for socio-economic mobility, economic development, culture and seeking a better life for those whom they are intended to serve.

Take almost any current public research university, and some non-profit privates, and compare their sense of purpose, funding, programmes and expectations of stakeholders, with their position 50 or even 20 years ago, and they are very different, whether in Europe, Asia, North America or elsewhere.

Leading national universities are now more important for socio-economic mobility, for producing economic and civic leaders, for knowledge production and for pushing innovation and societal self-reflection than at any other time in their history.

Hence, and despite a common narrative, universities are not static but evolving and startlingly productive institutions which play an increasingly central role in society and the world.

The New Flagship University (NFU) model attempts to capture this reality and envisions national leading universities as institutions that not only meet the standards of excellence focused on research productivity and rankings, but are creatively responsive to the larger social needs of their specific national or regional environment and people.

Put another way, the NFU model simply attempts to help create coherency, and provide some guides and examples for what many universities are already doing or are thinking of doing, but with an emphasis on pursuing an internal culture and continuous processes of evaluation and self-improvement – in other words, seeking excellence in all their endeavours, not just in a narrow band of certain kinds of research and prestige markers.

A role in national systems

Four ‘policy realms’ are offered to shape our understanding of a modern university’s broad purpose in society in addition to internal policies, practices and operational characteristics. This includes their role in national systems of higher education, their core missions of teaching, learning, research, public service and economic engagement, and their internal management and accountability practices.

These policy realms are not mutually exclusive; rather they are symbiotic and integrated.

For example, and in regard to a university’s place in a larger national higher education system, the institutions need to define their relationship with other universities and colleges, and to more carefully define their stakeholders. Most public universities have a sense of their responsibilities with regard to student admissions by some defined geographic area, with a caveat related to international students.

But they have a more vague understanding of their role in economic development and public service, including research and teaching that directly services local communities. This need for greater attention to a university’s locality also extends to building or expanding relations with local schools as well as other higher education institutions.

An overt definition of a distinct ‘service area’ – without exclusion of larger regional and international activities – is an important framework for directing or encouraging universities’ activities, and for evaluating their effectiveness. Unfortunately, many if not most universities float in a kind of haze regarding their stakeholders, and any sense of where they can make a real impact, and often do not systematically collect data and analysis on their impact, or their internal practices.

Teaching and learning

In the policy area of teaching and learning, an essential goal of the NFU is to provide first-degree students with an education that is engaging, that promotes creativity and scholarship and that results in high-order skills that are useful in the labour market, for entry possibly into graduate education, and for good citizenship, and for a fulfilling life.

One important concept is that there are many different student experiences and learning processes, shaped by the socio-economic background of students, their mental health, social support systems, sense of belonging at a large university and their different intelligences, abilities and interests.

The model uses the concept of engaged learning as an organising principle in teaching, particularly at the first-degree level, and offers examples of innovation in this area – including learning communities, service learning, hybrid courses, research opportunities, developing learning outcome goals at the degree level and the importance of co-curricular activities. There are also examples of reforms in graduate education, both professional and doctoral education.

Flagship universities have special responsibilities for graduate and professional education. There is a significant movement towards reform in graduate education, including a recognised need to not only educate and prepare future academics and researchers, but also professionals. The presence of professional masters and doctoral programmes and degrees does not feed into the current notions of a WCU, but I would argue they are an important component of universities that are comprehensive and vital to regional economic development.

Research and knowledge production

In the core area of research, flagship universities, and their faculty and students, are important contributors to the global science system. But it is important to recognise a variety of research and professional activities that do not always manifest in academic journal articles and international citation indexes.

In the model I describe four different types of academic research:

Discovery-Blue Sky research, that is, research that has no immediate application, commercial or otherwise;

Integrative research that is a synthesis of information across disciplines, across topics within a discipline or across time;

Societal Engagement that employs the rigour and application of disciplinary expertise with results that can be shared with and-or evaluated by peers; and

Teaching and Learning that provides a systematic study of teaching and learning processes.

These different areas of research, as noted later with more emphasis, need to be valued within the university community, and reflected in the hiring and advancement evaluation of faculty and researchers.

Public service or community engagement

Much of the attention of universities to their ‘third mission’ is focused on a narrow definition of technology or knowledge transfer. But the focus should not only be about faculty-generated research that generates patents, licences and start-ups, but about broader issues of interrelationship opportunities with the private sector and government, and research that promotes the interaction of faculty and students with local and regional business and industries.

Flagship universities promote public service in various forms by faculty, students and staff via formal programmes and incentives. This form of ‘outreach’ is extremely important, having a significant impact on local and regional communities and giving direct evidence of a flagship university’s priorities.

For instance, faculty, students and staff at most universities interact informally (as individuals) in various forms of community service. But flagship universities should include organisations and programmes, such as ‘community service centres’, that identify and link the university community with opportunities for volunteer work and for consulting.

Adult education, also called lifelong learning or university extension, is also an important strategy to extend university research-based knowledge. Historically, this has been an extremely important part of the mission of flagship universities in the US, with a focus on agriculture and food, home and family, the environment and community economic development. Elements of this type of activity exist throughout the world but are often not organised and financed in a way that places them more at the centre of a university’s activities.

Management and accountability

The organisation and management of national higher education systems are changing globally. Most are moving towards greater levels of autonomy while ministries expand their accountability requirements. The level of autonomy provided by governments and their ministries varies tremendously, although it is generally characterised by greater levels of freedom in financial and academic management for university administrators.

Governance and management capacity are a significant variable for institutions that, properly structured, allow a university to fully pursue the flagship model. Often the focus is on the managerial capacity of a rector or president and other top academic administrators, as well as the mechanisms for shared governance. This is important.

But there are other important cornerstones at the faculty and departmental level:

• A clear outline of expectations for faculty that reflects the values of the flagship university and the broad range of faculty responsibilities – often not well thought out or articulated in many universities;

• A process of hiring faculty and a regular review of a faculty member’s performance throughout their careers, linked to policies on their duties; and

• A regular review of academic departments or faculties (often called programme review) intended for internal decision-making.

In many if not most universities, there is a significant misalignment between the broad teaching, research and public service mission of the university and the incentives for faculty in the hiring and advancement process that tends to focus on a narrow concept of research productivity and teaching workload.

As I noted in a previous University World News article, this is one of the most important and largely neglected policy areas where universities need to innovate and apply simple behavioural economics – a missing link if you will.

Internal academic cultures

An important tenet of the NFU model is that there are limits to the effectiveness of governmental and ministerial interventions in university operations. Leading universities need to have greater control and build their own internal academic cultures through efforts focused on institutional self-improvement.

It is important to recognise that the current top-ranked research-intensive universities on the ARWU, and particularly the public universities in the US, were not built around a narrow band of quantitative measures of research productivity or reputational surveys. Hence, universities need to shift more of their attention to the fundamentals of their internal culture, policies and behaviours.

Finally, it is important to note that universities are complex organisations with dispersed locations of authority, with internal academic cultures that are sometimes beholden to traditional concepts of their university. Navigating reforms and pursuing innovation is no easy task.

The ranking and WCU paradigm now dominates many universities – in terms of their behaviours and goals – to such an extent that, for example, redefining faculty hiring and advancement can be restrained not only by faculty who currently only value certain kinds of research productivity, but also by civil service and ministerial rules.

Geography (for example a university’s urban versus rural location), resources and the political environment, laws and traditions that a university operates under also play a big part in their ability to strategise.

Yet for some universities that seek a holistic approach to their development, and that embrace an ethos of a constant search for self-improvement and greater societal impact, aspects of the New Flagship University model may be useful, particularly as the ranking and WCU influence fades.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior researcher and research professor of public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, United States. His most recent book is Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, autocrats, and the future of higher education (Johns Hopkins University Press). The New Flagship University model is available as E-Chapters (open access) and a New Flagship University Campus Assessment Matrix provides a path for evaluating how a particular university might map with the model.