It was a rare spectacle: a senior administrator of a leading international university, speaking at a conference of peers, issued a public "thank you" to those who compile university rankings. The rankers – me included -- more typically face criticism of the power and influence we wield.
But Chen Hong, director of the office of overseas promotion at China's Tsinghua University, told the World 100 Reputation Network conference in Washington in May: "We should thank those organizations who publish these indicators. At least we can find something for comparison and benchmark our own performance."
Reflecting the approach that my magazine, Times Higher Education (THE), has taken to disaggregate the overall composite ranking scores in our publications, she explained: "What is useful for us is the detailed indicators within those rankings. We can find out comparable data, benchmarking various universities and use them for planning."
Indeed, there is growing evidence that global rankings – controversial as they are – can offer real utility. But those of us who rank must also be outspoken about the abuses, not just the uses, of our output.
There is no doubt that global rankings can be misused.
It was reported recently, for example, that a $165 million Russian Global Education program would see up to 2,000 Russian students each year offered “very generous” funding to attend institutions around the world – but that qualification for the generous scholarships will be dependent on the students attending an institution in the top 300 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Brazil’s hugely ambitious Science Without Borders scholarship program to send 100,000 Brazilian students overseas similarly links the scholarships to THE-ranked institutions.
While such schemes offer a welcome endorsement of the rigor of THE’s rankings data (provided by Thomson Reuters) and its ranking methodology, speaking as the (rather flattered) editor of the THE rankings I'd still suggest that they are ill-advised.
Global university ranking tables are inherently crude, as they reduce universities to a single composite score. Such rigid adherence to the rankings tables risks missing the many pockets of excellence in narrower subject areas not captured by institutionwide rankings, or in areas of university performance, such as knowledge transfer, that are simply not captured well by any ranking.
One of the great strengths of global higher education its extraordinarily rich diversity, which can never be captured by the THE World University Rankings, which deliberately seek only to compare those research-intensive institutions competing in a global marketplace and which include less than 1 percent of the world’s higher education institutions.
In this context, a new declaration from a consortium of Latin American university rectors agreed in Mexico City last week must be welcomed as a sensible and helpful contribution to the rankings debate. The declaration, agreed at a two-day conference at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, entitled "Latin American Universities and the International Rankings: Impact, Scope and Limits," noted with concern that "a large proportion of decision makers and the public view these classification systems as offering an exhaustive and objective measure of the quality of the institutions."
The rectors’ concern is of course well-placed – no ranking can ever be objective, as they all reflect the subjective decisions of their creators as to which indicators to use, and what weighting to give them. Those of us who rank need to work with governments and policy makers to make sure that they are as aware of what rankings do not -- and can never -- capture, as much as what they can, and to encourage them to dig deeper than the composite scores that can mask real excellence in specific fields or areas of performance. That is why I was delighted to be in Mexico City last week to joint the debate.
The meeting, which drew together rectors and senior officials from 65 universities in 14 Latin American countries, issued a call to policy makers to "avoid using the results of the rankings as elements in evaluating the institution’s performance, in designing higher education policy, in determining the amount of finance for institutions and in implementing incentives and rewards for institutions and academic personnel."
I would – to a large extent -- agree. Responsibly and transparently compiled rankings like THE’s can of course have a very useful role in allowing institutions, like Tsingua and many, many others, to benchmark their performance, to help them plan their strategic direction. They can help governments to better understand some of the modern policy challenges of mass higher education in the knowledge economy, and to compare the performance of their very best research-led institutions to those of rival nations. The rankings can help industry to identify potential investment opportunities and help faculty member make career and collaboration decisions.
But they should inform decisions -- never drive decisions.
The Mexico declaration said: "We understand the importance of comparisons and measurements at an international level, but we cannot sacrifice our fundamental responsibilities in order to implement superficial strategies designed to improve our standings in the rankings."
Some institutional leaders are not as sensible as those in Latin America.
Speaking at the same Washington conference where Chen Hong gave thanks to the rankers, Pauline van der Meer Mohr, president of the executive board at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, confirmed frankly that proposals for a merger between her institution and Dutch counterparts the University of Leiden and the Delft University of Technology were “all about the rankings.”
The three Dutch institutions calculated, she explained, that merged as one, they would make the top 25 of world rankings, while separately they languish lower down the leagues. "Why would you do it if it doesn't do anything for the rankings?" she asked.
But the merger did not take place. It was dropped because of a mix of political unease, fierce alumni loyalty to the existing “brands,” and an “angry” response from research staff. Researchers at all three institutions, van de Meer Mohr admitted, had asked: "You are not going to merge universities just to play the rankings game?" To do so, they had concluded, would be "ridiculous."
I believe that those Dutch academics were quite right.
Phil Baty is editor of Times Higher Education rankings.
Last summer I spent a month in China, teaching a graduate seminar on American higher education at Wuhan University. Since that country is trying to improve its institutions of higher learning, there is considerable interest there in understanding how American research universities became as good as they are today. My course focused on the University of California, which is particularly relevant to China’s efforts for two reasons: UC’s spectacular success and its status as a high-quality university system, as opposed to just a high-quality campus.
This is an important example for a country that is trying to create widespread excellence among its best universities. Initiatives include the 211 project, which seeks to enhance the quality of 100 leading universities, and the 985 project, which provides additional funds to the top 38 institutions, particularly to the top nine of these, for further quality enhancement.
My graduate seminar went well, and my students were very engaged. I was impressed by their enthusiastic desire to improve higher education in China, as well as by their realism and common sense, which made me feel optimistic about the future of their country. My students were eager to discuss ideas freely. Their comments appeared quite candid, although critical views were usually tempered by statements to the effect that things were improving, seemingly the standard way of discussing problems in that country, where a rhetoric of progress permeates public discourse.
My students talked to their friends about my class, and I was soon invited by the local student organization to give a campus lecture about how China could build world-class universities. This aspiration, in my opinion, is the Chinese version of the “American Dream,” that country’s holy grail where progress is concerned. I do not think it a coincidence that the first global ranking of universities was produced in China in 2003, when the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University conducted its Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) to determine where Chinese universities stood relative to others.
The study concluded that no Chinese university ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions, thus establishing some benchmarks and goals for the country’s higher education system.
In my presentation to the student organization, I focused on how the University of California had become a world-class university system. The thrust of my comments was that all of the stars were aligned: visionary leadership, independent faculty, top students, a rich and supportive state, an attractive location, and a democratic spirit. As a result, the building of the University of California system stands out as the most spectacular academic success story of the 20th century.
An important factor contributing to UC’s success has been the presence of visionary academic leaders at key moments in its development: Daniel Coit Gilman (1872-1875), who articulated the vision of an elite university responsive to the democratic needs of the state -- a public Ivy; Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1899-1919), who transformed the Berkeley campus into a top institution of higher learning; and Clark Kerr (1958-1967), who built up the University of California system as we know it today. Whether China is willing to allow strong academic leadership to emerge at its universities, which are currently under political control, is an open question, but without such leadership, I think that it will be difficult to build truly outstanding institutions of higher learning.
A crucial factor in UC’s success has been the presence of a committed and accomplished faculty. UC’s unique promotion and merit process, a rewards system with performance evaluations every two or three years, has kept the faculty unusually engaged and productive. This process is overseen by the systemwide academic senate and campus faculty senates, which are very powerful. So, in addition to enjoying academic freedom, faculty members have a great deal of control and a strong sense of ownership of the institution. The tenure-track faculty is quite egalitarian, and young professors direct doctoral dissertations and join important committees from the start of their faculty careers, a situation that enhances innovation.
Chinese universities seem less focused on rewards than on punishment when it comes to faculty performance evaluations. In addition, junior faculty members have limited involvement in decision making. And all faculty members have relatively little power and significant limitations placed on their academic freedom. These conditions would have to change for the faculty to bloom and become truly outstanding.
Another important factor contributing to UC’s excellence has been the quality of its students, who are chosen from among the best in the state through a relatively flexible selection process. China has very competitive entrance examinations for its universities. In fact, examinations are the most important means of selecting students at all levels. The problem is that this method of selection does not necessarily recognize creativity, nor does the style of college teaching prevalent in that country, which is focused on memorization, encourage it. A better way of identifying talent will have to be devised if China is to tap its best minds fully and encourage them to think freely.
It is worth examining the status in China of the other three factors contributing to UC’s success, namely, a rich and supportive state, an attractive location and a democratic spirit. China is becoming rich quite quickly, and it seems very supportive of higher education, boding well for the future of its universities.
Less clear is how physically attractive it is to international faculty and students. The country might have to undergo further material development before its institutions of higher learning are able to attract people from other nations in significant numbers. After all, the United States did not draw many faculty members or students from abroad until the end of World War II, when it had become the most advanced country in the world. Last, but nor least, a democratic spirit has been a critical reason for the success of the University of California and of all American research universities.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge: a catch-22 for China’s leaders whose dream of building world-class universities cannot come true without the kind of political change they have been trying to avoid. The rhetoric of progress has its limits. As of now, the country does not appear democratic enough to foster truly great institutions of higher learning. Will China ever change in this respect?
If young people can have their way, I believe it will, for they are eager for their country to join the society of advanced nations. The “Chinese dream” of building world-class universities is really a dream of political normalcy, because there can be no world-class universities without freedom -- academic and otherwise.
Young people are very aware of this, which is why they look at the future with a healthy combination of doubt and hope.
Cristina González is a professor of education at the University of California at Davis. This essay is drawn from her book Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers, 2011).