What Global Rankings Ignore

Countries value universities that promote economic growth, but those who conduct international ratings are oblivious, writes Indira Samarasekera.

July 12, 2011

Put a group of university presidents together in one room and it won’t take long for the conversation to turn to that pesky thorn that is now firmly entrenched and slowly festering in our sides: national and international university rankings. In the beginning, when these rankings were largely compiled by media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report or Maclean’s to attract consumers to special features focused on the pros and cons of campuses in the U.S. or Canada, the thorn barely touched us with a glancing scratch. Over time, however, the annual scratch became more and more insistent and harder to ignore. Now rankings are nasty and barbed thorns with the capacity to hobble — sometimes disastrously so — otherwise healthy, high-functioning institutions of higher learning. And they’re here to stay.

The problems with national and international rankings are numerous and well known. So well known, in fact, that the world’s most powerful ranking organizations — the World’s Best Universities Rankings conducted by U.S. News & World Report in partnership with Quacquarelli Symonds and the Times Higher Education Rankings — have been working diligently to revise ranking measures and their methods in an attempt to increase the accuracy and objectivity of the rankings.

A laudable exercise, but even with recent changes, the rankings remain flawed and misleading on many fronts. Too many measures continue to rely on the subjective judgment of faculty, employers or students who, in most cases, will have little, if any, knowledge of institutions or individual researchers far outside the realm of their own direct experience. No measure has been found that accurately captures the value and impact of humanities and social science research, and trying to quantify the quality of undergraduate teaching or student experience through a simple faculty-student ratio simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. It must also be remembered that many of the rankings only take into account research that is recorded in English, leaving much of the tremendous work and talent in countries such as China and Russia unrecognized and under-valued.

From my perspective, rankings are also missing the mark by failing to shine a light on some of the most significant benefits that universities bring to local, national and global societies. The focus of most rankings is on academic research outputs — publications, citations and major awards — that stand in as proxies for research quality and reach. While these outputs do a fairly good job of pinpointing the impact of a university’s contributions to knowledge, especially in science, technology, engineering and health sciences, they provide little indication of what kind of impact these advancements have on factors that the global community generally agrees are markers of prosperous and secure societies with a high quality of life.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: governments and policy makers everywhere now consider universities as economic engines as well as educational institutions. Public investments in research are increasingly directed toward research with the potential to translate into products, processes and policies — even whole new industries. This trend in research funding reveals a lot about the ways in which universities matter to governments, policy makers, regions and the public today, but the rankers aren’t paying attention.

Consider Israel. According to data on NASDAQ’s website, Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country in the world except the U.S., and major companies such as Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Google have major research and development centers in Israel. Why? If you look at the data, you see a correlation between this entrepreneurial activity and the investments in and outputs from Israel’s universities.

Israel is among a handful of nations with the highest public expenditure on educational institutions relative to GDP, and it has the highest rate of R&D investment relative to GDP in the world. It also has the highest percentage of engineers in the work force and among the highest ratio of university degrees per capita. Many of the companies listed on NASDAQ were started by graduates of Israel’s universities: Technion, Tel Aviv University, Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to mention a few. Do international university rankings capture these economic impacts from research and postsecondary education in Israel? The answer is no. In spite of their tremendous impact and output, Israel’s universities are ranked somewhere in the 100 to 200 range.

Germany’s universities also tend to be undervalued in international rankings, even though Germany has had the strongest exports-led economic growth during the recession. By contrast, Britain’s productivity, growth and competitiveness lag far behind Germany, and still, British universities generally outrank Germany’s. According to OECD statistics, the proportion of higher education research and development funded by business in Germany is over twice that of Britain, which suggests the strong link between Germany’s globally competitive business sector and universities. Although many factors contribute to a country’s competitiveness, the role of universities, their quality and impact is an important factor.

My point here is not that universities should be ranked according to economic impact, per se. Instead it is to suggest that, if rankings are here to stay, then they should, at least in part, adhere more closely to measures that reflect the priorities for which universities are being held accountable today by their various stakeholders. Otherwise the rankings will continue to miss the mark and reinforce tired reputations and old hierarchies.


Indira Samarasekera is president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta.


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