It’s no secret that American and British universities dominate the global university rankings, a fact that's prompted the proliferation of regional rankings that delve deeper into the pool of say, just Latin American or just Asian universities. The slicing and dicing of international university rankings has been happening for years, but three new efforts to rank universities in countries that haven’t historically fared well in the international league tables – the Middle East and North Africa region and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries – have been announced in recent months.
Rankers emphasize that these new initiatives will provide even more of the world’s universities with comparative data about their performance. However, the involvement of governments in funding and fostering two of the three new rankings raises questions regarding potential conflicts of interest.
U.S. News & World Report – which of course is known for its rankings of American colleges – is moving forward with a planned ranking of universities in the Middle East and North Africa region, to be supported with a grant from the Qatar Foundation. This will be the first foray into the international rankings space on the part of U.S. News, which formerly published the global league tables compiled by the London-based ranker, QS Quacquarelli Symonds, but which has not previously developed its own ranking of foreign universities. U.S. News’s five-year contract with QS expired earlier this fall.
“We’re taking a step back to evaluate how U.S. News should rank higher education institutions globally and in the best way and how that aligns with the other U.S. News brands,” said Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. Morse will be overseeing the MENA ranking, which, according to a U.S. News press release , was initiated with the encouragement of Sheika Moza bint Nasser, the chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation and the wife of the country’s former emir.
The Qatar Foundation, which funds the U.S. and European branch campuses in Qatar, is providing a grant of an undisclosed size – raising questions about a potential conflict of interest. However, Morse said that U.S. News has complete editorial independence in developing and publishing the ranking. The foundation provided the grant, he said, but "they’re playing no part in creating the rankings.”
The methodology for the MENA ranking is still under development, and Morse said it will be a challenge to identify indicators that are comparable across the region. Any ranking will have to include a classification component, he said, explaining that just as U.S. News ranks Princeton, Harvard and Yale Universities separately from Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore Colleges, the American University of Beirut and Texas A&M’s branch campus in Qatar are not directly comparable.
“There’s a need for an evaluative effort, a comparative effort, that goes deeper than just the schools that are typically included in the global rankings,” Morse said, noting that few MENA institutions make the cut for lists of the top 200 or 500 universities worldwide.
Meanwhile, in a battle of the BRICS, two of the major producers of global rankings – QS and Times Higher Education – have both announced they’ll be releasing new rankings of universities in the BRICS countries in December.
The new QS ranking was, in the company’s words , “fostered by Russia’s ministry of education”: frustrated by the poor performance of Russian universities in the global rankings, the government put out a call for tender for a new ranking. Interfax, a Russian news and information services agency, won the contract and it in turn approached QS to be its partner in producing the ranking.
A press release from Interfax  issued earlier this year states that the “ranking system is based on criteria recommended to the Russian Education and Science Ministry in autumn of 2012 by Russia‘s leading universities” and that the methodology may be updated in the future “on the basis of recommendations of the Russian academic community and Interfax.” However, Zoya Zaitseva, project manager for the QS BRICS ranking, said that while QS took into consideration the advice of Russian academics and university rectors, the terms of the agreement stipulate that “QS owns the methodology, QS owns the data…. it’s our final say which criteria we use.”
Russian academics submitted more than 30 recommendations for criteria to be included in the rankings – many of which, Zaitseva said, "were pretty much in line with the methodology we've been using for more than 10 years now." The methodology  that was ultimately decided upon in consultation with QS’s advisory board is somewhat similar but not identical to the methodology that QS uses in its world rankings . The BRICS ranking puts a higher weight on employer reputation, for example, (20 versus 10 percent in the world ranking) and a lower weight on academic reputation (30 versus 40 percent).
By contrast, in compiling its new ranking of universities in 22 countries with emerging economies  – including the BRICS – the London-based Times Higher Education is using the same methodology  its uses for its world rankings. Only five universities from those 22 countries crack Times Higher Education’s overall ranking of the top 200 universities worldwide. Those five universities – Peking and Tsinghua Universities, in China, the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, National Taiwan University, and Boğaziçi University, in Turkey – will have the top five spots in the new BRICS and emerging economies ranking. But beyond those top five, "it’s going to be very helpful in allowing a large number of additional universities to better understand their relative performance and to have more data available to them,” said Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education rankings.
Baty said it was important to Times Higher Education to conduct its ranking of BRICS universities independently. “We feel very strongly that though we like to work closely with governments and to share information with governments we would prefer our rankings to be independent,” he said. "We are funding them independently. If we’re going to sit in judgment of universities in Brazil, India, China and Russia, we wouldn’t want to be seen as fulfilling any one government’s agenda.”