Euro angsts, insights and actions regarding global university ranking schemes

The Beerkens’ blog noted, on 1 July, how the university rankings effect has even gone as far as reshaping immigration policy in the Netherlands. He included this extract, from a government policy proposal (‘Blueprint for a modern migration policy’):

Migrants are eligible if they received their degree from a university that is in the top 150 of two international league tables of universities. Because of the overlap, the lists consists of 189 universities…

Quite the authority being vetted in ranking schemes that are still in the process of being hotly debated!

On this broad topic, I’ve been traveling throughout Europe this academic year, pursuing a project not related to rankings, yet again and again rankings come up as a topic of discussion, reminding us of the de-facto global governance power of rankings (and the rankers). Ranking schemes, especially the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, and The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings are generating both governance impacts, and substantial anxiety, in multiple quarters.

In response, the European Commission is funding some research and thinking on the topic, while France’s new role in the rotating EU Presidency is supposed to lead to some further focus and attention over the next six months. More generally, here is a random list of European or Europe-based initiatives to examine the nature, impacts, and politics of global rankings:

And here are some recent or forthcoming events:

Yet I can’t help but wonder why Europe, which generally has high quality universities, despite some significant challenges, did not seek to shed light on the pros and cons of the rankings phenomenon any earlier. In other words, despite the critical mass of brainpower in Europe, what has hindered a collective, integrated, and well-funded interrogation of the ranking schemes from emerging before the ranking effects and path dependency started to take hold? Of course there was plenty of muttering, and some early research about rankings, and one could argue that I am viewing this topic through a rear view mirror, but Europe was, arguably, somewhat late in digging into this topic considering how much of an impact these assessment cum governance schemes are having.

So, if absence matters as much as presence in the global higher ed world, let’s ponder the absence of a serious European critique, or at least interrogation of, rankings and the rankers, until now. Let me put forward four possible explanations.

First, action at a European higher education scale has been focused upon bringing the European Higher Education Area to life via the Bologna Process, which was formally initiated in 1999. Thus there were only so many resources – intellectual and material – that could be allocated to higher education, so the Europeans are only now looking outwards to the power of rankings and the rankers. In short, key actors with a European higher education and research development vision have simply been too busy to focus on the rankings phenomenon and its effects.

A second explanation might be that European stakeholders are, deep down, profoundly uneasy about competition with respect to higher education, of which benchmarking and ranking is a part. But, as the Dublin Institute of Technology’s Ellen Hazelkorn notes in Australia’s Campus Review (27 May 2008):

Rankings are the latest weapon in the battle for world-class excellence. They are a manifestation of escalating global competition and the geopolitical search for talent, and are now a driver of that competition and a metaphor for the reputation race. What started out as an innocuous consumer product – aimed at undergraduate domestic students – has become a policy instrument, a management tool, and a transmitter of social, cultural and professional capital for the faculty and students who attend high-ranked institutions….

In the post-massification higher education world, rankings are widening the gap between elite and mass education, exacerbating the international division of knowledge. They inflate the academic arms race, locking institutions and governments into a continual quest for ever increasing resources which most countries cannot afford without sacrificing other social and economic policies. Should institutions and governments allow their higher education policy to be driven by metrics developed by others for another purpose?

It is worth noting that Ellen Hazelkorn is currently finishing an OECD-sponsored study on the effects of rankings.

In short, institutions associated with European higher education did not know how to assertively critique (or at least interrogate) ranking schemes as they never realized, until more recently, how ranking schemes are deeply geopolitical and geoeconomic vehicles that enable the powerful to maintain their standing, and harness yet even more resources inward. Angst regarding competition dulled senses to the intrinsically competitive logic of global university ranking schemes, and the political nature of their being.

Third, perhaps European elites, infatuated as they are with US Ivy League universities, or private institutions like Stanford, just accepted the schemes for the results summarized in this table from an OECD working paper (July 2007) written by Simon Marginson and Marijk van der Wende:

for they merely reinforced their acceptance of one form of American exceptionalism that has been acknowledged in Europe for some time. In other words, can one expect critiques of schemes that identify and peg, at the top, universities that many European elites would kill to send their children to, to emerge? I’m not so sure. As with Asia (where I worked from 1997-2001), and now in Europe, people seem infatuated with the standing of universities like Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, but these universities really operate in a parallel universe. Unless European governments, or the EU, are willing to establish 2-3 universities like King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia recently did with a $10 billion endowment, then angling to compete with the US privates should just be forgotten about. The new European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) innovative as it may become, will not rearrange the rankings results, assuming they should indeed be rearranged.

Following what could be defined as a fait accompli phase, national and European political leaders came to progressively view the low status of European universities in the two key rankings schemes – Shanghai, and Times Higher – as a problematic situation. Why? The Lisbon Strategy emerges in 2000, was relaunched in 2005, and slowly starts to generate impacts, while also being continually retuned. Thus, if the strategy is to “become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”, how can Europe become such a competitive global force when universities – key knowledge producers – are so far off fast emerging and now hegemonic global knowledge production maps?

In this political context, especially given state control over higher education budgets, and the relaunched Lisbon agenda drive, Europe’s rankers of ranking schemes were then propelled into action, in trebuchet-like fashion. 2010 is, after all, a key target date for a myriad of European scale assessments.

Fourth, Europe includes the UK, despite the feelings of many on both sides of the Channel. Powerful and well-respected institutions, with a wealth of analytical resources, are based in the UK, the global centre of calculation regarding bibliometrics (which rankings are a part of). Yet what role have universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, UCL, and so on, or stakeholder organizations like Universities UK (UUK) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), played in shedding light on the pros and cons of rankings for European institutions of higher education? I might be uninformed but the critiques are not emerging from the well placed, despite their immense experience with bibliometrics. In short as rankings aggregate data that works at a level of abstraction that hoves universities into view, and places UK universities highly (up there with Yale, Harvard and MIT), then these UK universities (or groups like UUK) will inevitably be concerned about their relative position, not the position of the broader regional system of which they are part, nor the rigour of the ranking methodologies. Interestingly, the vast majority of the above initiatives I listed only include representatives from universities that are ranked relatively low by the two main ranking schemes that now hold hegemonic power. I could also speculate on why the French contribution to the regional debate is limited, but will save that for another day.

These are but four of many possible explanations for why European higher education might have been relatively slow to grapple with the power and effects of university ranking schemes considering how much angst and impacts they generate. This said, you could argue, as Eric Beerkens has in the comments section below, that the European response was actually not late off the mark, despite what I argued above. The Shanghai rankings emerged in June 2003, and I still recall the attention they generated when they were first circulated. Three to five years for sustained action in some sectors is pretty quick, while in some sectors it is not.

In conclusion, it is clear that Europe has been destabilized by an immutable mobile – a regionally and now globally understood analytical device that holds together, travels across space, and is placed in reports, ministerial briefing notes, articles, PPT presentations, newspaper and magazine stories, etc. And it is only now that Europe is seriously interrogating the power of such devices, the data and methodologies that underly their production, and the global geopolitics and geoeconomics that they are part and parcel of.

I would argue that it is time to allocate substantial European resources to a deep, sustained, and ongoing analysis of the rankers, their ranking schemes, and associated effects. Questions remain, though, about how much light will be shed on the nature of university rankings schemes, what proposals or alternatives might emerge, and how the various currents of thought in Europe converge or diverge as some consensus is sought. Some institutions in Europe are actually happy that this ‘new reality’ has emerged for it is perceived to facilitate the ‘modernization’ of universities, enhance transparency at an intra-university scale, and elevate the role of the European Commission in European higher education development dynamics. Yet others equate rankings and classification schema with neoliberalism, commodification, and Americanization: this partly explains the ongoing critiques of the typology initiatives I linked to above, which are, to a degree, inspired by the German Excellence initiative, which is in turn partially inspired by a vision of what the US higher education system is.

Regardless, the rankings topic is not about to disappear. Let us hope that the controversies, debates, and research (current and future) inspire coordinated and rigorous European initiatives that will shed more light on this new form of defacto global governance. Why? If Europe does not do it, no one else will, at least in a manner that recognizes the diverse contributions that higher education can and should make to development processes at a range of scales.

Kris Olds

23 July update: see here for a review of a 2 juillet 2008 French Senate proposal to develop a new European ranking system that better reflects the nature of knowledge production (including language) in France and Europe more generally.  The full report (French only) can be downloaded here, while the press release (French only) can be read here.  France is, of course, going to publish a Senate report in French, though the likely target audience for the broader message (including a critique of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities) only partially understands French.  Yet in some ways it would have been better to have the report released simultaneously in both French and English.  But the contradictions of France critiquing dominant ranking schemes for their bias towards the English language, in English, was likely too much to take. In the end though, the French critique is well worth considering, and I can’t help but think that the EU or one of the many emerging initiatives above would be wise to have the report immediately translated and placed on some relevant websites so that it can be downloaded for review and debate.

8 thoughts on “Euro angsts, insights and actions regarding global university ranking schemes

  1. I would actually dispute that they have acted slow on this matter. After all, the phenomenon of international rankings is a relatively recent one. Shanghai started in 2003 (but got publicly recognised only one or two years later) and the Times started in 2004.

    Most of the actions you identified find their origins in 2005 or 2006, so a variety of stakeholders and researchers initiated the discussion quite swiftly.

    Obviously, rankings existed before that as well. These however were national rankings and mainly from the UK, US and Australia. Not surprisingly these are the more market oriented systems and hence there was more need for transparency and information here. In most of continental Europe, there was not such a need for that. Basically, everybody knew the hierarchy.

    The new need for transparency and information in Europe arises because of the reforms of many systems, creating more competition between universities. But because of the Europeanisation of higher education in Europe, there is now also a need for transparency at the European level.

    The only available tools at that time were the two well known university rankings. Luckily there are now a list of other initiatives as well and these might make the two international rankings less important, at least for the European higher education institutions.

  2. Thanks Eric. I agree in many ways…I might be a little inclined to split hairs, though in other ways not…my recollection of the Shanghai discussions (I was in Madison at the time) was the debate surged forward immediately in 2003 following the release of their findings. I was also sensitized to them as I taught in Singapore (1997-2001) when Asia Inc and other pubs were ranking Asian universities at a regional scale. And given my interest in other global service sector actors, it is my biased view that the response rate to something this global, opaque, and potentially damaging, was relatively slow. But then again I have only been living in Europe in 2007-2008, and universities are, well, universities… In any case some very good points…thanks! K

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