The worldwide ranking industry in higher education is more abundant than ever. Much has been said about the strong effects—sometimes irrational—of rankings upon institutional strategy and priorities, including internal choices about budgets allocation, the institution’s policies regarding admission and pricing. Much is known about the intrinsic fabric of the rankings and their biases; the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities is regularly criticized for its over-emphasis on research performance, obscuring the multiplicity of university missions and particularly the value of teaching; more generally, rankings tend to over emphasize the formal dimensions of institutions such as their age, size, field coverage, leading to distortions in the perception of their actual qualities.
Despite the large volume of essays and scholarships that have been dedicated to university rankings, their emergence and proliferation remain a puzzling issue. The dominant account for why rankings appeared in the HE landscape draws on economic perspectives. The economy of singularities developed by the French sociologist Lucien Karpik1 helps making sense of the ranking phenomenon. Higher education, as a good or service, cannot be judged by standard methods because it is multidimensional, and offers quality that defies precise measures. Because of the highly subjective valuation of higher education, the consumers or stakeholders use a range of judgment devices such as labels, brands, critiques and rankings. With the exponential expansion of higher education institutions and programs HE stakeholders increasingly use rankings to judge quality to feel that they have made a more informed choice. According to this theory, HE stakeholders (either students and their families, nation-states, university graduates’ employers) looking for more transparency would be the agents of the rankings expansion.
A recent study2 on the genesis of the EdUniversal Ranking brings in a novel perspective on the subject. Today, EdUniversal ranks 4000 of the best Masters & MBAs in 30 fields of study worldwide. The saga started in 2002 when the EdUniversal founder, a French entrepreneur, launched a first league table of masters programs in Finance, and subsequently engaged the attention of the national and specialized press that published it.
Before developing a ranking, EdUniversal’s CEO was a consultant in student placement; he would provide individual coaching to individuals to help them enroll in the schools or universities of their dreams. He was struck by the fact that the great majority of his clients had the same project— enrolling in one of the most prestigious French Grandes Ecoles in business education. At that point, he realized that he would not be able to develop his coaching activity to achieve this desire for all of his clients. Moreover he was convinced that the real quality of Grandes Ecoles was to a large extent fraudulent; in his view, many of the programs offered by Grandes Ecoles benefit from the “halo effect” of their prestigious brand and an objective assessment of their quality and value was needed. He thus decided to create a new ranking, based on three measures— employer opinion of the programs in their field of expertise, graduate employment rates and salaries—employing a quality survey sent to the graduates of these programs. In parallel, he organizes an annual 2-days forum where HE institutions and incoming students can meet; he has also published a guide (paper and on-line) where HE institutions and their departments can advertise their programs. Institutions pay for advertising (6000 euros for a public master degree, 7500 for a private one). The EdUniversal CEO denies any possibility that the system could be corrupted, claiming that the schools pay for advertising and not for being ranked. The Mignot-Gerard & Sarfati’s study demonstrates that schools do pay for the visibility– the public business schools they studied invest around 50,000 Euros per year to be present in the EdUniversal annual forum and benefit from ads in the guide.
How can one account for the success and influence of EdUniversal? Certainly not by seeing students as consumers in need of relevant information about the quality of programs. Quite the opposite actually: when the EdUniversal founder abandoned coaching activities, it was precisely because his client’s perception of the French higher education conformed to the vertical hierarchy. The major explanation of EdUniversal influence lies to a great extent in the powerful – but tacit – alliance between an entrepreneur and schools that have for a long time suffered in the shadow of the prestigious Grandes Ecoles. With EdUniversal, more masters programs are seen as comparable to those offered by Grandes Ecoles. The university leaders state that being ranked in EdUniversal has led to an increase in quantity and quality of their applicants, which in turn has strengthened their status – accomplishing the function of other rankings3. The students/graduates of those programs also leverage the EdUniversal rankings strategically to increase the value of their university degrees, particularly when they negotiate their salaries with their employers. In sum, this ranking is used less as a quality device than as a reputational instrument that serves the interests of middle-range schools in a highly stratified HE system.
While most studies point to the damaging effects of the rankings on higher education, the EdUniversal saga suggests that the diversification of the ranking industry may better account for the multidimensional features of academic quality and challenge the prevailing hierarchies of prestige in higher education.
1. Karpik, L. Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities. 2010. Princeton University Press
2. Mignot-Gérard, S. & Sarfati, F. Dispositif de jugement sur la qualité ou instrument de construction de la réputation ? Le cas d’un classement universitaire. 2015. Terrains & Travaux 26: 167-185
3. Espeland, W.-N. & Sauder, M. (2007), « Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds », American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 113/1, 1-40