Some Australian universities are paying about $100,000 a year each to employ full-time managers dedicated to working with ranking agencies and developing strategies aimed at climbing league tables.
The University of New South Wales recently advertised for a manager of strategic reputation, while La Trobe University was seeking a manager of institutional rankings. For $100,000, responsibilities included maintaining relationships with ranking agencies to "maximize" or "optimize" their positions in rankings.
Observers say such positions highlight the growing importance of rankings in influencing research and teaching plans. But there are concerns that the professionalized management of rankings risks warping university strategies and may prove more a marketing effort than an effort to boost the substance of an institution's performance.
The deputy vice chancellor at New South Wales, Les Field, said the position wasn't new and was part of a team that ensured the information sent to annual data collections and the ranking agencies was accurate.
"It's essential to have a team dedicated to getting our numbers right as well as providing the analysis on which we can direct the research effort into the future," Field said. (Several American universities have been ensnared in controversies over their flawed -- and in some cases seemingly gamed -- reporting of data to rankings organizations. So far Australian universities have not been similarly besmirched.)
Field said there were many shortcomings to rankings, including being backward-looking and subjective, but that they were very important public measures of universities.
"We all watch the international rankings but we don't stress about them. The numbers will fall where they fall," he said.
Keith Nugent, La Trobe's deputy vice chancellor (research), said the emergence of such positions was a recognition that rankings had become increasingly important in attracting staff and international students. But he said while institutions needed to present themselves as best they could, they should be wary of letting rankings determine strategy.
He said the rationale behind the role was to ensure the best information was put forward "without blithely going forward and letting the ranking direct what we do."
But the rankings expert Simon Marginson said he was concerned that such positions highlighted a focus on marketing rather than enhancing performance.
"What I don't like about these jobs is the apparent focus on manipulating the rankings game, rather than lifting the substance of university performance," said Marginson, a scholar at the University of Melbourne's Center for the Study of Higher Education.
"This smacks more of maximizing the presentation of data to rankings agencies than on improving performance as such. It is little more than an exercise in specialized marketing and perhaps not the best use of a full-time job."
David Morrison, Murdoch University's deputy vice chancellor (research), argued that managing rankings data was plain common sense.
When he joined from the University of Western Australia last year he couldn't understand why Murdoch wasn't in the Times Higher Education rankings, and discovered that it was simply because the data weren't being submitted.
This year Murdoch was ranked in the 301-350 band.
Morrison is in the final stages of concentrating existing staff who collate performance data into a single data analytics group headed by a director, to ensure the right information is sent to ranking agencies and Excellence in Research for Australia.
He said rankings couldn't be ignored but neither should universities be "dogged" by them.
"Rankings are an input into strategy, they don't drive it," he said.