On the illogics of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings (2013)

Note: you can link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of the same entry.

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Amidst all the hype and media coverage related to the just released Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings (2013), it’s worth reflecting on just how small of a proportion of the world’s universities are captured in this exercise (see below). As I noted last November, the term ‘world university rankings’ does not reflect the reality of the exercise the rankers are engaged in; they only focus on a minuscule corner of the institutional ecosystem of the world’s universities.

The firms associated with rankings have normalized the temporal cycle of rankings despite this being an illogical exercise (unless you are interested in selling advertising space in a magazine and on a website).  As Alex Usher pointed out earlier today in ‘The Paradox of University Rankings‘ (and I quote in full):

By the time you read this, the Times Higher Education’s annual Reputation Rankings will be out, and will be the subject of much discussion on Twitter and the Interwebs and such.  Much as I enjoy most of what Phil Baty and the THE do, I find the hype around these rankings pretty tedious.

Though they are not an unalloyed good, rankings have their benefits.  They allow people to compare the inputs, outputs, and (if you’re lucky) processes and outcomes at various institutions.  Really good rankings – such as, for instance, the ones put out by CHE in Germany – even disaggregate data down to the departmental level so you can make actual apples-to-apples  comparisons by institution.

But to the extent that rankings are capturing “real” phenomena, is it realistic to think that they change every year?  Take the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produced annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (full disclosure: I sit on the ARWU’s advisory board).   Those rankings, which eschew any kind of reputational surveys, and look purely at various scholarly outputs and prizes, barely move at all.  If memory serves, in the ten years since it launched, the top 50 has only had 52 institutions, and movement within the 50 has been minimal.  This is about right: changes in relative position among truly elite universities can take decades, if not centuries.

On the other hand, if you look at the Times World Reputation Rankings (found here), you’ll see that, in fact, only the position of the top 6 or so is genuinely secure.  Below about tenth position, everyone else is packed so closely together that changes in rank order are basically guaranteed, especially if the geographic origin of the survey sample were to change somewhat.  How, for instance, did UCLA move from 12th in the world to 9th overall in the THE rankings between 2011 and 2012 at the exact moment the California legislature was slashing its budget to ribbons?  Was it because of extraordinary new efforts by its faculty, or was it just a quirk of the survey sample?  And if it’s the latter, why should anyone pay attention to this ranking?

This is the paradox of rankings: the more important the thing you’re measuring, the less useful it is to measure it on an annual basis.  A reputation ranking done every five years might, over time, track some significant and meaningful changes in the global academic pecking order.  In an annual ranking, however, most changes are going to be the result of very small fluctuations or methodological quirks.  News coverage driven by those kinds of things is going to be inherently trivial.

Top100WUR2013

The real issues to ponder are not relative placement in the ranking and how the position of universities has changed, but instead why this ranking was created in the first place and whose interests it serves.

Kris Olds

World University Rankings — Time for a Name Change?

I’ve often wondered if the term ‘World University Rankings’ — the one deployed by the firm QS in its QS World University Rankings®, or TSL Education Ltd along with Thomson Reuters, in their Times Higher Education World University Rankings, is an accurate and indeed ethical one to use.

My concern over the term was heightened during visit to Jamaica last week where I attended the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Conference of Executive Heads. I was invited by the ACU, the world’s oldest international consortia with 500+ member institutions in 37 countries, to engage in a debate about rankings with Ms. Zia Batool (Director General, Quality Assurance and Statistics, Higher Education Commission, Pakistan) and Mr. Phil Baty (Editor, Times Higher Education). Link here for a copy of the conference agenda. The event was very well organized, and Professor Nigel Harris, Chair of the ACU Council and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was a wonderful host.

My concern about the term ‘World University Rankings’ relates to the very small number of universities that are ranked relative to the total number of universities around the world that have combined research and teaching mandates. World University Rankings is a term that implies there is a unified field of universities that can be legitimately compared and ranked in an ordinal hierarchical fashion on the basis of some common metrics.

The words ‘World’ + ‘University’ implies that all of the universities scattered across the world are up for consideration, and that they can and will be ranked. And as the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word, ‘rank’ means:

2 a :relative standing or position
2 b : a degree or position of dignity, eminence, or excellence : distinction <soon took rank as a leading attorney — J. D. Hicks>

2 c : high social position <the privileges of rank>
2 d : a grade of official standing in a hierarchy
3: an orderly arrangement : formation
4 : an aggregate of individuals classed together —usually used in plural
5 : the order according to some statistical characteristic (as the score on a test)

Even more than the term ‘World Class Cities,’ the term World University Rankings is inclusive in symbolism, implying that any student, staff or faculty member from any university in any continent could exam these rankings online, or in the glossy magazine we received via Times Higher Education, and cross one’s fingers that ‘my’ or ‘our’ university might be in the Top 200 or Top 400. But look at the chances.

Alas, the vast majority of the world’s faculty, students and staff feel quickly depressed, dejected, unhappy, and sometimes concerned, when World University Ranking outcomes are examined. Students ask university leaders “what’s wrong with our university? Why are we not in the world university rankings?” Expectations spurred on by the term are dashed year after year. This might not be such a problem were it not for the fact that politicians and government officials in ministries of higher education, or indeed in prime ministerial offices, frequently react the same way.

But should they be feeling like they were considered and then rejected? No.

First, there are vast structural differences in the world of higher education related to scales of material resources, human resources (e.g., No. 1 Caltech’s student-faculty ratio is 3-1!), access to the world’s information and knowledge banks (e.g., via library data bases), missions (including the mandate to serve the local region, build nations, serve the poor, present minimal access access hurdles), etc. Language matters too for there is an undeniable global political and cultural economy to the world’s publication outlets (see ‘Visualizing the uneven geographies of knowledge production and circulation‘). These structural differences exist and cannot be wished away or ignored.

Second, it is worth reminding consumers of World University Rankers that these analytical devices are being produced by private sector firms based in cities like London whose core mission is to monetize the data they acquire (via universities themselves for free, as well as other sources) so as to generate a profit. Is profit trumping ethics? Do they really believe it is appropriate to use a term that implies a unified field of universities can be legitimately compared and ranked in an ordinal hierarchical fashion?

Is there an alternative term to World University Rankings that would better reflect the realities of the very uneven global landscape of higher education and research? Rankings and benchmarking are here to stay, but surely there must be a better way of representing what it really going on than implying everyone was considered, and 96-98% rejected. And let’s not pretend a discussion of methodology via footnotes, or a few methods-oriented articles in the rankings special issue, gets the point across.

The rankers out there owe it to the world’s universities (made up of millions of committed and sincere students, faculty, and staff) to convey who is really in the field of comparison. The term World University Rankings should be reconsidered, and a more accurate alternative should be utilized: this is one way corporate social responsibility is practiced in the digital age.

Kris Olds

Measuring Academic Research in Canada: Field-Normalized Academic Rankings 2012

Greetings from Chicago where I’m about to start a meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on Mobilizing Higher Education to Support Regional Innovation and A Knowledge-Driven Economy. The main objective of meeting here is to explore a possible higher education focused-follow-up to the OECD’s Territorial Review: the Chicago Tri-State Metro Area. I’ll develop an entry about this fascinating topic in the new future.

Before I head out to get my wake-up coffee, though, I wanted to alert you to a ‘hot-off the press’ report by Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA). The report can be downloaded here in PDF format, and I’ve pasted in the quasi-press release below which just arrived in my email InBox.

More food for fodder on the rankings debate, and sure to interest Canadian higher ed & research people, not to mention their international partners (current & prospective).

Kris Olds

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Research Rankings

August 28, 2012
Alex Usher

Today, we at HESA are releasing our brand new Canadian Research Rankings. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished here, so let me tell you a bit about them.

Unlike previous Canadian research rankings conducted by Research InfoSource, these aren’t simply about raw money and publication totals. As we’ve already seen, those measures tend to privilege strength in some disciplines (the high-citation, high-cost ones) more than others. Institutions which are good in low-citation, low-cost disciplines simply never get recognized in these schemes.

Our rankings get around this problem by field-normalizing all results by discipline. We measure institutions’ current research strength through granting council award data, and we measure the depth of their academic capital (“deposits of erudition,” if you will) through use of the H-index, (which, if you’ll recall, we used back in the spring to look at top academic disciplines). In both cases, we determine the national average of grants and H-indexes in every discipline, and then adjust each individual researcher’s and department’s scores to be a function of that average.

(Well, not quite all disciplines. We don’t do medicine because it’s sometimes awfully hard to tell who is staff and who is not, given the blurry lines between universities and hospitals.)

Our methods help to correct some of the field biases of normal research rankings. But to make things even less biased, we separate out performance in SSHRC-funded disciplines and NSERC-funded disciplines, so as to better examine strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. But, it turns out, strength in one is substantially correlated with strength in the other. In fact, the top university in both areas is the same: the University of British Columbia (a round of applause, if you please).

I hope you’ll read the full report, but just to give you a taste, here’s our top ten for SSHRC and NSERC disciplines.

Eyebrows furrowed because of Rimouski? Get over your preconceptions that research strength is a function of size. Though that’s usually the case, small institutions with high average faculty productivity can occasionally look pretty good as well.

More tomorrow.

Towards a Global Common Data Set for World University Rankers

Last week marked another burst of developments in the world university rankings sector, including two ‘under 50’ rankings. More specifically:

A coincidence? Very unlikely. But who was first with the idea, and why would the other ranker time their release so closely? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect the originator of the idea was Times Higher Education (with Thomson Reuters) as their outcome was formally released second. Moreover, the data analysis phase for the production of the THE 100 Under 50 was apparently “recalibrated” whereas the QS data and methodology was the same as their regular rankings – it just sliced the data different way. But you never know, for sure, especially given Times Higher Education‘s unceremonious dumping of QS for Thomson Reuters back in 2009.

Speaking of competition and cleavages in the world university rankings world, it is noteworthy that India’s University Grants Commission announced, on the weekend, that:

Foreign universities entering into agreement with their Indian counterparts for offering twinning programmes will have to be among the global top 500.

The Indian varsities on the other hand, should have received the highest accreditation grade, according to the new set of guidelines approved by University Grants Commission today.

“The underlining objective is to ensure that only quality institutes are permitted for offering the twinning programmes to protect the interest of the students,” a source said after a meeting which cleared the regulations on twinning programmes.

They said foreign varsities entering into tie-ups with Indian partners should be ranked among the top 500 by the Times Higher Education World University Ranking or by Shanghai Jiaotong University of the top 500 universities [now deemed the Academic Ranking of World Universities].

Why does this matter? We’d argue that it is another sign of the multi-sited institutionalization of world university rankings. And institutionalization generates path dependency and normalization. When more closely tied to the logic of capital, it also generates uneven development meaning that there are always winners and losers in the process of institutionalizing a sector. In this case the world’s second most populous country, with a fast growing higher education system, will be utilizing these rankings to mediate which universities (and countries) linkages can be formed with.

Now, there are obvious pros and cons to the decision made by India’s University Grants Commission, including reducing the likelihood that ‘fly-by-night’ operations and foreign for-profits will be able to link up with Indian higher education institutions when offering international collaborative degrees. This said, the establishment of such guidelines does not necessarily mean they will be implemented. But this news item from India, related news from Denmark and the Netherlands regarding the uses of rankings to guide elements of immigration policy (see ‘What if I graduated from Amherst or ENS de Lyon…; ‘DENMARK: Linking immigration to university rankings‘), as well as the emergence of the ‘under 50’ rankings, are worth reflecting on a little more. Here are two questions we’d like to leave you with.

First, does the institutionalization of world university rankings increase the obligations of governments to analyze the nature of the rankers? As in the case of ratings agencies, we would argue more needs to be known about the rankers, including their staffing, their detailed methodologies, their strategies (including with respect to monetization), their relations with universities and government agencies, potential conflicts of interest, so on. To be sure, there are some very conscientious people working on the production and marketing of world university rankings, but these are individuals, and it is important to set the rules of the game up so that a fair and transparent system exists. After all, world university rankers contribute to the generation of outcomes yet do not have to experience the consequences of said outcomes.

Second, if government agencies are going to use such rankings to enable or inhibit international linkage formation processes, not to mention direct funding, or encourage mergers, or redefine strategy, then who should be the manager of the data that is collected? Should it solely be the rankers? We would argue that the stakes are now too high to leave the control of the data solely in the hands of the rankers, especially given that much of it is provided for free by higher education institutions in the first place. But if not these private authorities, then who else? Or, if not who else, then what else?

While we were drafting this entry on Monday morning a weblog entry by Alex Usher (of Canada’s Higher Education Strategy Associates) coincidentally generated a ‘pingback’ to an earlier entry titled ‘The Business Side of World University Rankings.’ Alex Usher’s entry (pasted in below, in full) raises an interesting question that is worth of careful consideration not just because of the idea of how the data could be more fairly stored and managed, but also because of his suggestions regarding the process to push this idea forward:

My colleague Kris Olds recently had an interesting point about the business model behind the Times Higher Education’s (THE) world university rankings. Since 2009 data collection for the rankings has been done by Thomson Reuters. This data comes from three sources. One is bibliometric analysis, which Thomson can do on the cheap because it owns the Web of Science database. The second is a reputational survey of academics. And the third is a survey of institutions, in which schools themselves provide data about a range of things, such as school size, faculty numbers, funding, etc.

Thomson gets paid for its survey work, of course. But it also gets the ability to resell this data through its consulting business. And while there’s little clamour for their reputational survey data (its usefulness is more than slightly marred by the fact that Thomson’s disclosure about the geographical distribution of its survey responses is somewhat opaque) – there is demand for access for all that data that institutional research offices are providing them.

As Kris notes, this is a great business model for Thomson. THE is just prestigious enough that institutions feel they cannot say no to requests for data, thus ensuring a steady stream of data which is both unique and – perhaps more importantly – free. But if institutions which provide data to the system want any data out of this it again, they have to pay.

(Before any of you can say it: HESA’s arrangement with the Globe and Mail is different in that nobody is providing us with any data. Institutions help us survey students and in return we provide each institution with its own results. The Thomson-THE data is more like the old Maclean’s arrangement with money-making sidebars).

There is a way to change this. In the United States, continued requests for data from institutions resulted in the creation of a Common Data Set (CDS); progress on something similar has been more halting in Canada (some provincial and regional ones exist but we aren’t yet quite there nationally). It’s probably about time that some discussions began on an international CDS. Such a data set would both encourage more transparency and accuracy in the data, and it would give institutions themselves more control over how the data was used.

The problem, though, is one of co-ordination: the difficulties of getting hundreds of institutions around the world to co-operate should not be underestimated. If a number of institutional alliances such as Universitas 21 and the Worldwide Universities Network, as well as the International Association of Universities and some key university associations were to come together, it could happen. Until then, though, Thomson is sitting on a tidy money-earner.

While you could argue about the pros and cons of the idea of creating a ‘global common data set,’ including the likelihood of one coming into place, what Alex Usher is also implying is that there is a distinct lack of governance regarding world university rankers. Why are universities so anemic when it comes to this issue, and why are higher education associations not filling the governance space neglected by key national governments and international organizations? One answer is that their own individual self-interest has them playing the game as long as they are winning. Another possible answer is that they have not thought through the consequences, or really challenged themselves to generate an alternative. Another is that the ‘institutional research’ experts (e.g., those represented by the Association for Institutional Research in the case of the US) have not focused their attention on the matter. But whatever the answer, at the very least, we think that they at least need to be posing themselves a set of questions. And if it’s not going to happen now, when will it? Only after MIT demonstrates some high profile global leadership on this issue, perhaps with Harvard, like it did with MITx and edX?

Kris Olds & Susan L. Robertson

The Business Side of World University Rankings

Over the last two years I’ve made the point numerous times here that world university rankings have become normalized on an annual cycle, and function as data acquisition mechanisms to drill deep into universities but in a way that encourages (seduces?) universities to provide the data for free. In reality, the data is provided at a cost given that the staff time allocated to produce the data needs to be paid for, and allocating staff time this way generates opportunity costs.

See below for the latest indicator of the business side of world university rankings. Interestingly today’s press release from Thomson Reuters (reprinted in full) makes no mention of world university rankings, nor Times Higher Education, the media outlet owned by TSL Education, which was itself acquired by Charterhouse Capital Partners in 2007. Recall that it was that Times Higher Education began working with Thomson Reuters in 2010.

The Institutional Profiles™ that are being marketed here derive data from “a combination of citation metrics from Web of KnowledgeSM, biographical information provided by institutions, and reputational data collected by Thomson Reuters Academic Reputation Survey,” all of which (apart form the citation metrics) come to the firm via the ‘Times Higher Education World University Rankings (powered by Thomson Reuters).’

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with providing services (for a charge) to enhance the management of universities, but would most universities (and their funding agencies) agree, from the start, to the establishment of a relationship where all data is provided for free to a centralized private authority headquartered in the US and UK, and then have this data both managed and monetized by the private authority? I’m not so sure.

This is arguably another case of universities thinking for themselves and not looking at the bigger picture. We have a nearly complete absence of collective action on this kind of developmental dynamic; one worthy of greater attention, debate, and oversight if not formal governance.

Kris Olds

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12 Apr 2012

Thomson Reuters Improves Measurement of Universities’ Performance with New Data on Faculty Size, Reputation, Funding and Citation Measures

Comprehensive data now available in Institutional Profiles for universities such as Princeton, McGill, Nanyang Technological, University of Hong Kong and others

Philadelphia, PA, April 12, 2012 – The Intellectual Property & Science business of Thomson Reuters today announced the availability of 138 percent more performance indicators and nearly 20 percent more university data within Institutional Profiles™, the company’s online resource covering more than 500 of the world’s leading academic research institutions. This new data enables administrators and policy makers to reliably measure their institution’s performance and make international comparisons.

Using a combination of citation metrics from Web of KnowledgeSM, biographical information provided by institutions, and reputational data collected by Thomson Reuters Academic Reputation Survey, Institutional Profiles provides details on faculty size, student body, reputation, funding, and publication and citation data.

Two new performance indicators were also added to Institutional Profiles: International Diversity and Teaching Performance. These measure the global composition of staff and students, international co-authorship, and education input/output metrics, such as the ratio of students enrolled to degrees awarded in the same area. The indicators now cover 100 different areas, ensuring faculty and administrators have the most complete institutional data possible.

All of the data included in the tool has been vetted and normalized for accuracy. The latest update also includes several enhancements to existing performance indicators, such as Normalized Citation Impact. This allows for equally weighted comparisons between subject groups that have varying levels of citations.

“Institutional Profiles continues to provide answers to the questions that keep administrators up at night: ‘Beyond citation impact or mission statement, which institutions are the best collaboration partners for us to pursue? How can I understand the indicators and data that inform global rankings?’,” said Keith MacGregor, executive vice president at Thomson Reuters. “With this update, the tool provides the resources to reliably measure and compare academic and research performance in new and more complete ways, empowering strategic decision-making based on each institution’s unique needs.”

Institutional Profiles, a module within the InCites™ platform, is part of the research analytics suite of solutions provided by Thomson Reuters that supports strategic decision making and the evaluation and management of research. In addition to InCites, this suite of solutions includes consulting services, custom studies and reports, and Research in View™.

For more information, go to:
http://researchanalytics.thomsonreuters.com/institutionalprofiles/

About Thomson Reuters
Thomson Reuters is the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals. We combine industry expertise with innovative technology to deliver critical information to leading decision makers in the financial and risk, legal, tax and accounting, intellectual property and science and media markets, powered by the world’s most trusted news organization. With headquarters in New York and major operations in London and Eagan, Minnesota, Thomson Reuters employs approximately 60,000 people and operates in over 100 countries. For more information, go to http://www.thomsonreuters.com.

Contacts

Alyssa Velekei
Public Relations Specialist
Tel: +1 215 823 1894

Why now? Making markets via the THE World Reputation Rankings

The 2012 Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings were released at 00.01 on 15 March by Times Higher Education via its website. It was intensely promoted via Twitter by the ‘Energizer Bunny’ of rankings, Phil Baty, and will be circulated in hard copy format to the magazine’s subscribers.

As someone who thinks there are more cons than pros related to the rankings phenomenon, I could not resist examining the outcome, of course! See below and to the right for a screen grab of the Top 20, with Harvard demolishing the others in the reputation standings.

I do have to give Phil Baty and his colleagues at Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters credit for enhancing the reputation rankings methodology. Each year their methodology gets better and better.

But, and this is a big but, I have to ask myself why is the reputation ranking coming out on 15 March 2012 when the when the survey was distributed in April/May 2011 and when the data was used in the 2011 World University Rankings, which were released in October 2011? It is not like the reputation outcome presented here is complex. The timing makes no sense, whatsoever, from an analytical angle.

However, if we think about the business of rankings, versus analytical cum methodological questions, the release of the ‘Reputation Rankings’ makes absolute sense.

First, the release of the reputation rankings now keeps the rankings agenda, and Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters, elevated in both higher education and mass media outlets. The media coverage unfolding as you read this particular entry would not be emerging if the reputation rankings were bundled into the general World University Rankings that were released back in October. It is important to note that QS has adopted the same ‘drip drip’ approach with the release of field-specific ranking outcomes, regional ranking outcomes, etc. A single annual blast in today’s ‘attention economy’ is never enough for world university rankers.

Second, and on a related note, the British Council’s Going Global 2012 conference is being held in London from 13-15 March. As the British Council put it:

More than five hundred university Presidents, Vice-Chancellors and sector leaders will be among the 1300 delegates to the British Council’s ‘Going Global 2012’ conference in March.

The conference will be the biggest ever gathering of higher education leaders. More than 80 countries will be represented, as leaders from government, academia and industry debate a new vision of international education for the 21st century.

The Times Higher Education magazine is released every Thursday (so 15 March this week), and so this event provides the firms of TSL Education Ltd., and Thomson Reuters with a captive audience of ‘movers and shakers’ for their products, and associated advertising. Times Higher Education is also an official media partner for Going Global 2012.

Make no mistake about it – there is an economic logic to releasing the reputation rankings today, and this trumps an analytical logic that should have led Times Higher Education to release the reputation outcome back in October so we could all better understand the world university ranking outcome and methodology.

More broadly, there really is no logic to the annual cycle of world rankings; if there were, funding councils worldwide would benchmark annually. But there is a clear business logic to normalizing the annual cycle of world university rankings, and this has indeed become the ‘new normal.’ But even this is not enough. Much like the development and marketing of running shoes, iPods, and fashion accessories, the informal benchmarking that has always gone on in academia has become formalized, commercialized, and splintered into distinct and constantly emerging products.

In the end, it is worth reflecting if such rankings are improving learning and research outcomes, as well as institutional innovation. And it is worth asking if the firms behind such rankings are themselves as open and transparent about their practices and agendas as they expect their research subjects (i.e. universities) to be.

Now back to those rankings. Congrats, Harvard!  But more importantly, I wonder if UW-Madison managed to beat Michigan…….oh oh.

Kris Olds

On being seduced by The World University Rankings (2011-12)

Well, it’s ranking season again, and the Times Higher Education/Thomson Reuters World University Rankings (2011-2012) has just been released. The outcome is available here, and a screen grab of the Top 25 universities is available to the right. Link here for a pre-programmed Google News search for stories about the topic, and link here for Twitter-related items (caught via the #THEWUR hash tag).

Polished up further after some unfortunate fall-outs from last year, this year’s outcome promises to give us an all improved, shiny and clean result. But is it?

Like many people in the higher education sector, we too are interested in the ranking outcomes, not that there are many surprises, to be honest.

Rather, what we’d like to ask our readers to reflect on is how the world university rankings debate is configured. Configuration elements include:

  • Ranking outcomes: Where is my university, or the universities of country X, Y, and Z, positioned in a relative sense (to other universities/countries; to peer universities/countries; in comparison to last year; in comparison to an alternative ranking scheme)?
  • Methods: Is the adopted methodology appropriate and effective? How has it changed? Why has it changed?
  • Reactions: How are key university leaders, or ministers (and equivalents) reacting to the outcomes?
  • Temporality: Why do world university rankers choose to release the rankings on an annual basis when once every four or five years is more appropriate (given the actual pace of change within universities)? How did they manage to normalize this pace?
  • Power and politics: Who is producing the rankings, and how do they benefit from doing so? How transparent are they themselves about their operations, their relations (including joint ventures), their biases, their capabilities?
  • Knowledge production: As is patently evident in our recent entry ‘Visualizing the uneven geographies of knowledge production and circulation,’ there is an incredibly uneven structure to the production of knowledge, including dynamics related to language and the publishing business.  Given this, how do world university rankings (which factor in bibliometrics in a significant way) reflect this structural condition?
  • Governance matters: Who is governing whom? Who is being held to account, in which ways, and how frequently? Are the ranked capable of doing more than acting as mere providers of information (for free) to the rankers? Is an effective mechanism needed for regulating rankers and the emerging ranking industry? Do university leaders have any capability (none shown so far!) to collaborate on ranking governance matters?
  • Context(s): How do schemes like the THE’s World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and the QS World University Rankings, relate to broader attempts to benchmark higher education systems, institutions, and educational and research practices or outcomes? And here we flag the EU’s new U-Multirank scheme, and the OECD’s numerous initiatives (e.g., AHELO) to evaluate university performance globally, as well as engender debate about benchmarking too. In short, are rankings like the ones just released ‘fit for purpose’ in genuinely shed light on the quality, relevance and efficiency of higher education in a rapidly-evolving global context?

The Top 400 outcomes will and should be debated, and people will be curious about the relative place of their universities in the ranked list, as well as about the welcome improvements evident in the THE/Thomson Reuters methodology. But don’t be invited into distraction and only focus on some of these questions, especially those dealing with outcomes, methods, and reactions.

Rather, we also need to ask more hard questions about power, governance, and context, not to mention interests, outcomes, and potential collateral damage to the sector (when these rankings are released and then circulate into national media outlets, and ministerial desktops). There is a political economy to world university rankings, and these schemes (all of them, not just the THE World University Rankings) are laden with power and generative of substantial impacts; impacts that the rankers themselves often do not hear about, nor feel (e.g., via the reallocation of resources).

Is it not time to think more broadly, and critically, about the big issues related to the great ranking seduction?

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson