Fighting back against a future determined by rankings

Fighting back against a future determined by rankings

Date : 22 October 2019

Reported by : dsh

Category : News


Jenny J Lee  19 October 2019

Share Jenny J Lee is a NAFSA Senior Fellow and has contributed an essay to NAFSA’s International Education in a Time of Global Disruption report. The following is an edited critique of Ellen Hazelkorn’s contribution in the same report on global rankings in the wider context of higher education’s geopolitics. Hazelkorn cautions that the fact that rankings use controversial measures and are ‘insufficiently meaningful’ raises a significant ethical dilemma for international education professionals which many are apprehensive to talk about. She warns that excessive emphasis on research-related indicators hinders institutional diversification and can diminish the importance of local engagement and community service.

Ellen Hazelkorn, a leading international expert of global rankings, offers a critical look at the powerful role of rankings and the limitations of relying on them as internationally comparable measures of institutional quality. As Hazelkorn makes clear, global rankings legitimise a relatively narrow set of research and reputation indicators and position institutions, as well as the nation-states in which they are located, in competition with one another.

Scientific research, a major determinant in university rankings, is not only influencing governmental and institutional policy, but is also being influenced by policy. In regard to the latter, global science, such as research addressing health and environmental concerns, extends beyond national borders, but then becomes bounded by governmental policy agendas and rising nationalism.

In the case of the United States, policy measures are increasingly limiting scholarly engagement with China in the midst of current trade disputes and accusations of intellectual theft. Given that the two countries are the world’s leading international research collaborators, the implications for scientific advancement on a global scale are concerning.

The potential for institutional preferences for scholarly work that fit existing rankings criteria – and how these priorities shape global science – is also worrisome. While internationalisation, along with international collaboration, will likely continue, if not increase, scientific research agendas and collaborative networks will certainly shift in the coming years in what Hazelkorn refers to as a “multipolar world”.

World-class systems

A related issue that Hazelkorn raises is how the pursuit of excellence, as measured by rankings, “promotes world-class universities rather than world-class systems”. A common criticism is that universities are becoming so self-interested that their very roles as social institutions are being challenged.

In his article in the Senior Fellows’ compilation, “Higher Education Civic (Dis)Engagement and Internationalization,” John Hudzik elaborates on this point and warns of ways that universities are disengaging locally while seeking to internationalise and calls for greater attention to universities’ civic engagement in their internationalisation efforts. These issues are especially concerning for institutions at the highest ranks.

Social engagement

A recent study of strategic plans among 78 universities across 33 countries found strategic plans stratified by the global ranks. Compared to lower- and non-ranked institutions, institutions at the top ranks were far less explicit about public engagement – also referred to as ‘the third mission’ – particularly with respect to social and cultural pursuits.

There was also considerably less mention of local community needs and engagement among the top-ranked universities in the study, compared to those at the bottom ranks.

The study identified a possible deprioritisation of the third mission, especially activities that are not directly aligned with neoliberal agendas. For top-ranked universities located in emerging economies especially, local communities may be paying the price for their universities’ ranking ambitions.

Last year, the Times Higher Education rankings announced a new ranking based on university success in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Whether this or any future ranking of related third mission goals will change prevailing notions of university excellence is uncertain, but it is doubtful because the underlying premise is competition via rank.

Lag indicators

Beyond asking what global rankings tell us, Hazelkorn also alludes to what they do not tell us. They do not tell us universities’ contributions beyond the narrow set of mostly research-related indicators. They do not tell us universities’ relevance and direct contributions to their local communities. They do not tell us the present, but they do have the power to determine the future.

University rankings are ‘lag indicators’ that are continually reinforced by governmental and institutional reinvestment. Thus, future policies and strategies must take into account the new global realities that Hazelkorn describes with an eye toward building a ‘world-class system’. This charge will require re-envisioning excellence that is not narrowly determined by a rank, as well as engaging with the changing global society, including local communities.

Jenny J Lee is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States and former researcher at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, where she earned her PhD. Lee is also a visiting scholar in the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Lee’s research encompasses a range of key higher education issues that centre on the internationalisation of higher education. Her research topics have included organisational behaviours, community partnerships and student engagement globally. Opinions expressed by the Senior Fellows are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. NAFSA’s International Education in a Time of Global Disruption report is available free to non-members here.

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