‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities

This week, one of the two major credit rating agencies in the world, Standard & Poor’s (Moody’s is the other), issued their annual ‘Report Card’ on UK universities. This year’s version is titled UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues but Still Face Spending Pressures and it has received a fair bit of attention in media outlets (e.g., the Financial Times and The Guardian). Our thanks to Standard and Poor’s for sending us a copy of the report.

Five UK universities were in the spotlight after having their creditworthiness rated by Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s). In total, S&P’s assesses 20 universities in the UK (5 are made public, the rest are confidential), with 90% of this survey considered by the rating agency to be of high investment grade quality (of A- or above).

Universities in the UK, it would appear from S&P’s Report Card, have had a relatively good year from ‘a credit perspective’. This pronouncement is surely something to celebrate in a year when the word ‘credit crunch’ has become the new metaphor for economic meltdown, and when higher education institutions are likely to be worried about the affects of the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis on loans to students and institutions more generally.

But to the average lay person (or even the average university professor), with a generally low level of financial literacy, what does this all mean? Global ratings agencies passing judgments on UK universities, or policies to drive the sector more generally, or, finally, individual institutional governance decisions?

Three years ago, when one of us (Susan) was delivering an Inaugural Professorial Address at Bristol, S&P’s 2005 report on Bristol (AA/Stable/–) was flashed up, much to the amusement of the audience though to the bemusement of the Chair, a senior university leader. The mild embarrassment of the Chair was largely a consequence of the fact that he was unaware of this judgment on Bristol by a credit rating agency headquartered in New York.

Now the reason for showing S&P’s judgment on the University of Bristol was neither to amuse the audience nor to embarrass the Chair. The point at the time was to sketch out the changing landscape of globalizing education systems within the wider global political economy, to introduce some of the newer (and more private) players who increasingly wield policymaking/shaping power on the sector, to reflect on how these agencies work, and to delineate some of the emerging effects of such developments on the sector.

Our view is that current analyses of globalizing higher education have neglected the role of credit rating agencies in the governance of the higher education sector—as specialized forms of intelligence gathering, shaping and judgment determination on universities. Yet, credit rating agencies are, in many ways, at the heart of contemporary global governance. Witness, for example, the huge debates going on now about establishing a European register for ratings agencies.

The release, then, this week of the S&P’s UK Universities 2008 Report Card, is an opportunity for GlobalHigherEd to sketch out to interested readers a basic understanding of global rating agencies and their relationship to the global governance of higher education.

Rating agencies – origins

Timothy Sinclair, a University of Warwick academic, has been writing for more than a decade on rating agencies and their roles in what he calls the New Global Finance (NGF) (Sinclair, 2000). His various articles and books (see, for example, Sinclair 1994; 2000; 2003; 2005)—some of which are listed below—are worth reading for those of you who want to pursue the topic in greater depth.

Sinclair outlines the early development and subsequent growing importance of credit rating agencies—the masters of capital and second superpowers—arguing that there have been a number of distinct phases in their development.

The first phase dates back to the 1850s, when compendiums of information were produced for American financial markets about large industrial infrastructure developments, such as railroads and canals. However, it was not until the 1907 financial crisis that these early compendiums of information were then used to make judgements about the creditworthiness of debtors (Sinclair, 2003: 148).

‘Rating’ then entered a period of rapid growth from the mid-1930s onwards, as a result of state governments in the US incorporating rating standards into their prudential rules for investment by pension funds.

A third phase began in the 1980s, when new financial innovations (particularly low-rated or junk bonds) were developed, and cheaper offshore non-national money markets were created (that is, places where funds are raised by selling debt obligations and equity outside of the current constraints of government regulation).

However this process, of what Sinclair (1994: 136) calls the ‘disintermediation’ of financing (meaning state regulatory bodies are side-stepped), creates information problems for those wishing to lend money and those wishing to borrow it.

The current phase is now characterized by, on the one hand, greater internationalization of finance, and on the other hand hand, increased significance of capital markets that challenge the role of Banks, as intermediaries.

Credit rating agencies have, as a result, become more important as suppliers of the information with which to make credit-worthiness judgments.

New York-based rating agencies have grown rapidly since then, responding to innovations in financial instruments, on the one hand, and the need for information, on the other. Demand for information has also generated competition within the industry, with some firms operating niche specializations – for instance, as we see with Standards & Poor’s and the higher education sector, itself a subsidiary of publishers McGraw Hill,

Credit rating is big, big business. As Sinclair (2005) notes, the two major credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standards & Poor’s, pass judgments on around a $30 trillion worth of securities each year. Ratings also affect rates or costs of borrowing, so that the higher the rating, the less risk of default on repayment to the lender and therefore the lower the cost to the borrower.

Universities with different credit ratings will, therefore, be differently placed to borrow – so that the adage of ‘the more you have the more you get’ becomes a major theme.

The rating process

If we look at the detail of the ‘issuer credit rating’ and ‘comments’ in the Report Card of, for instance, the University of Bristol, or King’s College London, we can see that detail is gathered on the financial rating of the issuer; on the industry, competitors, and economy; on legal advice related to the specific issue; on management, policy, business outlook, accounting practices and so on; and on the competitive position, quality of management, long term industry prospects, and wider economic environment. As Sinclair (2003: 150) notes:

The rating agencies are most interested in data on cash flow relative to debt service obligations. They want to know how liquid the company is, and where there will be timely problems likely to hinder repayment. Other information may include five-year financial projections, including income statements and balance sheets, analysis of capital spending plans, financing alternatives, and contingency plans. This information which may not be publicly known is supplemented by agency research into the value of current outstanding obligations, stock valuations and other publicly available data that allows for an inference…

The rating that follows – an opinion on creditworthiness—is generated by an analytical team, a report is prepared with the rating and rationale, this is put to the rating committee made up of senior officials, and a final determination is made in private. The decision is subject to appeal by the issuer. Issuer credit ratings can be either long or short term. S&P use the following nomenclature for long term issue credit ratings (see Bankers Almanac, 2008: 1- 3):

  • AAA – (highest/ extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • AA – very strong capacity to meet financial commitments
  • A – strong capacity to meet financial commitments, but susceptible to adverse affects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions
  • BBB – adequate capacity to meet financial commitments
  • BB – less vulnerable in the near term than other lower rated obligators, but faces major ongoing uncertainties
  • B – more vulnerable than BB – but adverse business, financial or economic conditions will likely impair obligator’s capacity to meet its financial commitments

Rating higher education institutions

In light of the above discussion, we can now look more closely at the kinds of judgments passed on those universities included in a typical Report Card on the sector by Standards & Poor’s (see 2008: 7).

The 2008 Report Card itself is short; a 9 page document which offers a ‘credit perspective’ on the sector more generally, and on 5 universities. We are told “the UK higher education sector has made positive strides over the past few years, but faces increasing risks in the medium-to-long term” (p. 2).

The Report goes on to note a trebling of tuition fees in the UK, the growth the overseas student market and associated income, an increase in research income for research intensive universities – so that of the 5 universities rated, 1 has been upgraded, another has had its outlook revised to ‘positive’, and no ratings were adjusted for the other three.

The Report also notes (p. 2) that the universities publicly rated by S&P’s are among the leading universities in the UK. To support this claim they refer to another ranking mechanism that is now providing information in the global marketplace – The Times Higher QS World Universities Rankings 2007, which is, as we have noted in a recent entry (‘Euro angsts‘), receiving considerable critical attention in Europe.

However, the Report Card also notes pressures within the system: higher wage demands linked to tuition increases, the search for new researchers to be counted as part of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), global competition for international students, and the heightened expectations of students for better infrastructure as a result of higher fees.

Longer term risks include the fact that by 2020, there will be 16% fewer 18 year olds coming through the system, according to forecasts by Universities UK – with the biggest impact being on the newer universities (in the UK these so-called ‘newer universities’ are previous polytechnics who were given university status in 1992).

Of the 20 UK universities rated in this S&P’s Report, 4 universities are rated AAA; 8 are rated AA; 6 are rated A, and 2 are rated BBB. The University of Bristol, as we can see from the analysts’ rating and comments which we have reproduced below, is given a relatively favorable rating. We have also quoted this rating at length to give you a sense of the kind of commentary made and how this relates to the judgment passed.


Credit rating agencies, as instruments of the global governance of higher education

Credit rating agencies are particularly powerful because both markets and governments see them as authoritative sources of judgment, with the result that they are major actors in controlling access to capital markets. And despite the evident importance of credit rating agencies on the governance of universities in the UK and elsewhere, there is a remarkable lack of attention to this phenomenon. We think there are important questions that need to be researched and the results discussed more widely. For example:

  • How widely spread is the practice?
  • Why are some universities rated whilst others are not?
  • Why are some universities’ ratings considered confidential whilst others are not (keeping in mind that they are all, in the above UK case, public taxpayer supported universities)?
  • Have any universities contested their credit rating, and if so, through what process, and with what outcome?
  • How do university’s management systems respond to these credit ratings, and in what ways might they influence ongoing policy decisions within the university and within the sector?
  • How robust are particular kinds of reputational or status ‘information’, such as World University Rankings, especially if we are looking at creditworthiness?

Our reports on these global rankings show that there are major problems with such measures. As we have profiled, and as has University Ranking Watch and the Beerkens’ Blog, there are clearly unresolved debates and major problems with global ranking schemes.

Clearly market liberalism, of the kind that has characterized this current period of globalization, requires new kinds of intermediaries to provide information for both buyer and seller. And it cannot hurt to have ‘outside’ assessments of the fiscal health of institutions (in this case universities) that are complex, often opaque, and taxpayer supported. However, to experts like Timothy Sinclair (2003), credit rating agencies privatize policymaking, and they can narrow the sphere of government intervention.

For EU Internal Market Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, the credit ratings agencies like Moody’s and S&P’s contributed to the current financial market turmoil because they underestimated the risks related to their structured credit products. As the Commissioner commented in EurActiv in June.: “No supervisor appears to have got as much as a sniff of the rot at the heart of the structured finance rating process before it all blew up.”

In other words, credit rating agencies lack political accountability and enjoy an ‘accountability gap’. And while efforts are now under way by regulators to close that gap by developing new regulatory frameworks and rules, analysts worry that these private actors will now find new ways around the rules, and in turn facilitate the creation of a riskier financial architecture (as happened with global mortgage markets).

As universities become more financialized, as well as ranked, indexed and barometered in the ways we have been mapping on GlobalHigherEd, such ‘information’ on the sector will also likely be deployed to pass judgment and generate ratings and rankings of ‘creditworthiness’ for universities. The net effect may well be to exaggerate the differences between institutions, to generate greater levels of uneven development within and across the sector, and to increase rather then decrease the opacity and therefore accountability of the sector.

In sum, there is little doubt credit rating agencies, in passing judgments, play a key and increasingly important role in the global governance of higher education. It is also clear from these developments that we need to pay much closer attention to what might be thought of as mundane entities – credit rating agencies – and their role in the global governance of higher education. And we are also hopeful that credit ratings agencies will outline their views on this important dimension of the small g governance of higher education institutions.

Selected References

Bankers Almanac (2008) Standards and Poor’s Definitions, last accessed 5 August 2008.

King, M. and Sinclair, T. (2003) Private actors and public policy: a requiem for the new Basel Capital Accord, International Political Science Review, 24 (3), pp. 345-62.

Sinclair, T. (1994) Passing judgement: credit rating processes as regulatory mechanisms of governance in the emerging world order, Review of International Political Economy, 1 (1), pp. 133-159.

Sinclair, T. (2000) Reinventing authority: embedded knowledge networks and the new global finance, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, August 18 (4), pp. 487-502.

Sinclair, T. (2003) Global monitor: bond rating agencies, New Political Economy, 8 (1), pp. 147-161.

Sinclair, T. (2005) The New Masters of Capital: American Bond Rating Agencies and the Politics of Creditworthiness, New York: Cornell University Press.

Standard & Poor’s (2008) Report Card: UK Universities Enjoy Higher Revenues But Still Face Spending Pressures, London: Standards & Poor’s.

Susan Robertson and Kris Olds

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5 thoughts on “‘Passing judgment’: the role of credit rating agencies in the global governance of UK universities

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