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World University Rankings -- Time for a Name Change?
November 16, 2012 - 8:26am

I've often wondered if the term 'World University Rankings' -- the one deployed by the firm QS in its QS World University Rankings®, or TSL Education Ltd along with Thomson Reuters, in their Times Higher Education World University Rankings, is an accurate and indeed ethical one to use.

My concern over the term was heightened during visit to Jamaica last week where I attended the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Conference of Executive Heads. I was invited by the ACU, the world's oldest international consortia with 500+ member institutions in 37 countries, to engage in a debate about rankings with Ms. Zia Batool (Director General, Quality Assurance and Statistics, Higher Education Commission, Pakistan) and Mr. Phil Baty (Editor, Times Higher Education). Link here for a copy of the conference agenda. The event was very well organized, and Professor Nigel Harris, Chair of the ACU Council and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was a wonderful host.

My concern about the term 'World University Rankings' relates to the very small number of universities that are ranked relative to the total number of universities around the world that have combined research and teaching mandates. World University Rankings is a term that implies there is a unified field of universities that can be legitimately compared and ranked in an ordinal hierarchical fashion on the basis of some common metrics.

The words 'World' + 'University' implies that all of the universities scattered across the world are up for consideration, and that they can and will be ranked. And as the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word, 'rank' means:

2 a :relative standing or position
2 b : a degree or position of dignity, eminence, or excellence : distinction <soon took rank as a leading attorney — J. D. Hicks>
2 c : high social position <the privileges of rank>
2 d : a grade of official standing in a hierarchy
3: an orderly arrangement : formation
4 : an aggregate of individuals classed together —usually used in plural
5 : the order according to some statistical characteristic (as the score on a test)

Even more than the term 'World Class Cities,' the term World University Rankings is inclusive in symbolism, implying that any student, staff or faculty member from any university in any continent could exam these rankings online, or in the glossy magazine we received via Times Higher Education, and cross one's fingers that 'my' or 'our' university might be in the Top 200 or Top 400. But look at the chances.

Alas, the vast majority of the world's faculty, students and staff feel quickly depressed, dejected, unhappy, and sometimes concerned, when World University Ranking outcomes are examined. Students ask university leaders "what's wrong with our university? Why are we not in the world university rankings?" Expectations spurred on by the term are dashed year after year. This might not be such a problem were it not for the fact that politicians and government officials in ministries of higher education, or indeed in prime ministerial offices, frequently react the same way.

But should they be feeling like they were considered and then rejected? No.

First, there are vast structural differences in the world of higher education related to scales of material resources, human resources (e.g., No. 1 Caltech's student-faculty ratio is 3-1!), access to the world's information and knowledge banks (e.g., via library data bases), missions (including the mandate to serve the local region, build nations, serve the poor, present minimal access access hurdles), etc. Language matters too for there is an undeniable global political and cultural economy to the world's publication outlets (see 'Visualizing the uneven geographies of knowledge production and circulation'). These structural differences exist and cannot be wished away or ignored.

Second, it is worth reminding consumers of World University Rankers that these analytical devices are being produced by private sector firms based in cities like London whose core mission is to monetize the data they acquire (via universities themselves for free, as well as other sources) so as to generate a profit. Is profit trumping ethics? Do they really believe it is appropriate to use a term that implies a unified field of universities can be legitimately compared and ranked in an ordinal hierarchical fashion?

Is there an alternative term to World University Rankings that would better reflect the realities of the very uneven global landscape of higher education and research? Rankings and benchmarking are here to stay, but surely there must be a better way of representing what it really going on than implying everyone was considered, and 96-98% rejected. And let's not pretend a discussion of methodology via footnotes, or a few methods-oriented articles in the rankings special issue, gets the point across.

The rankers out there owe it to the world's universities (made up of millions of committed and sincere students, faculty, and staff) to convey who is really in the field of comparison. The term World University Rankings should be reconsidered, and a more accurate alternative should be utilized: this is one way corporate social responsibility is practiced in the digital age.

 

 

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