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More thoughts on higher education rankings and Latin American universities
October 29, 2012 - 10:25am

In September, Argentina’s private Di Tella University invited me, together with other colleagues, to participate on a panel called “Rankings are here to stay”. I agreed. Consequently, I tried to be pragmatic and focus my presentation on the possible uses of higher education rankings and league tables in Latin America. According to the literature, university rankings serve at least four purposes: organizational performance benchmarking for university governance, transparency of information on the functioning of institutions, students’ guidance in their program and institution choice, and help for public policy design.

My personal view is that global rankings play an important role in guiding the development of research universities and in the design of public policy. However, they do not help to consolidate a differentiated higher education system or provide transparency and information to students and the productive sector.  The main global rankings, such as those conducted by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's (SJTU) Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and the Time Higher Education (Supplement) (THE), could undoubtedly foster the development of one or two world-class universities with clear research profiles (depending on available financial resources) in our countries. This was, in fact, the public policy goal of the ranking initially launched by Jiao Tong University in China.

While training graduates for the global labor market is an activity carried out by multiple universities and non-university institutions with diverse missions, the priority given to research and technological activities suggests that resources should be concentrated in those institutions with the greatest potential to fulfill this goal. So, as was the case in China, these international rankings may be useful to guide policy in this direction. Nonetheless, in so doing, Latin American governments and universities should take into account the methodological limitations of these global rankings in relation to the indicators they employed and the bias favoring the hard sciences.

In our knowledge society, research universities are key actors that can make national innovation systems more competitive. This task, however, is not easy in some Latin American countries and not only because they have a significantly lower per capita GDP than those countries with the top 100 universities. Building research universities implies concentrating funds in a handful of institutions. In a context of scarce resources and a mass education policy, this funding design may exacerbate conflict in the allocation process. So, from a political perspective it is not as feasible for Latin America to build world-class universities. Nonetheless, they should make the effort and thus close the advanced technology gap.

Note that global rankings do not necessarily improve the quality and relevance of graduates according to the requirements of the labor market. A common issue on the higher education policy agenda has been the inevitability of institutional differentiation.

Differentiation is key both to meeting the diverse needs of the heterogeneous group of students that are currently enrolled in higher education and those of the globalized labor market.  Within this differentiation strategy, there is the so-called non-university tertiary education. Latin America still considers that these institutions offer a less prestigious education. At a seminar on Latin American higher education technical institutions, held in Buenos Aires this month, one of the experts from Brazil noted that the best technological institutions in his country aspire to become universities. In his words, "Everyone wants to be MIT". If the policy objective of Latin American governments is a differentiated higher education system to serve the needs of the heterogeneous student population and local labor markets, international rankings will be useless because they promote an isomorphic model of American research universities. They implicitly encourage a general academic drift in higher education institutions. What may be more suitable would be to bear in mind some national rankings like The Guardian University League Table. This ranking focuses on excellence in teaching and concentrates on the student experience and indicators such as student-teacher ratio, expenditure per student, GPA, a value-added score, and the proportion of alumni who found work or continued graduate education six months after graduation.

In the absence of national rankings in Latin American countries that report on the quality of teaching and job prospects at different HEIs and programs, people use the more informal and imperfect word of mouth ranking. This informal approach can be misleading and rather inequitable because it depends on access to reliable information and contacts. This social capital is generally more concentrated in wealthy middle-income families. To overcome the problem of asymmetric information distribution, national rankings could be a possible solution. They could guide students and provide more transparency about higher education management. In this regard, initiatives like the European U-Multirank, built to serve different audiences in an interactive way, could also be a step in the right direction. In particular, this initiative follows the 2006 Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions in the construction of indicators. One of the main purposes of this U-Multirank is to provide the opportunity for interactive rankings for students and society at large to build their own rankings, allowing for a diversity of objectives.

In sum, rather than investing resources to build a ranking for Latin American universities as an alternative to the existing global rankings, a more profitable path would be to begin building our own country HEIs-Multirank with the objective of promoting equal access to information for students coming from different socio-economic backgrounds and according to their needs.  This would also encourage university governance to learn from the experiences of others rather than foster competition. 


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