‘University Systems Ranking (USR)’: an alternative ranking framework from EU think-tank

One of the hottest issues out there still continuing to attract world-wide attention is university rankings. The two highest profile ranking systems, of course, are the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the Times Higher rankings, both of which focus on what might constitute a world class university, and on the basis of that, who is ranked where. Rankings are also part of an emerging niche industry. All this of course generates a high level of institutional, national, and indeed supranational (if we count Europe in this) angst about who’s up, who’s down, and who’s managed to secure a holding position. And whilst everyone points to the flaws in these ranking systems, these two systems have nevertheless managed to capture the attention and imagination of the sector as a whole. In an earlier blog enty this year GlobalHigherEd mused over why European-level actors had not managed to produce an alternate system of university rankings which might counter the hegemony of the powerful Shanghai Jiao Tong (whose ranking system privileges the US universities) on the one hand, and act as a policy lever that Europe could pull to direct the emerging European higher education system, on the other.

Yesterday The Lisbon Council, an EU think-tank (see our entry here for a profile of this influential think-tank) released which might be considered a challenge to the Shanghai Jiao Tong and Times Higher ranking schemes – a University Systems Ranking (USR) in their report University Systems Ranking Citizens and Society in the Age of Knowledge. The difference between this ranking system and the Shanghai and Times is that it focuses on country-level data and change, and not  individual institutions.

The USR has been developed by the Human Capital Center at The Lisbon Council, Brussels (produced with support by the European Commission’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency) with advice from the OECD.

The report begins with the questions: why do we have university systems? What are these systems intended to do? And what do we expect them to deliver – to society, to individuals and to the world at large? The underlying message in the USR is that “a university system has a much broader mandate than producing hordes of Nobel laureates or cabals of tenure – and patent bearing professors” (p. 6).

So how is the USR different, and what might we make of this difference for the development of universities in the future? The USR is based on six criteria:

  1. Inclusiveness – number of students enrolled in the tertiary sector relative to the size of its population
  2. Access – ability of a country’s tertiary system to accept and help advance students with a low level of scholastic aptitude
  3. Effectiveness – ability of country’s education system to produce graduates with skills relevant to the country’s labour market (wage premia is the measure)
  4. Attractiveness – ability of a country’s system to attract a diverse range of foreign students (using the top 10 source countries)
  5. Age range – ability of a country’s tertiary system to function as a lifelong learning institution (share of 30-39 year olds enrolled)
  6. Responsiveness – ability of the system to reform and change – measured by speed and effectiveness with which Bologna Declaration accepted (15 of 17 countries surveyed have accepted the Bologna criteria.

These are then applied to 17 OECD countries (all but 2 signatories of the Bologna Process). A composite ranging is produced, as well as rankings on each of the criteria. So what were the outcomes for the higher education systems of these 17 countries?

Drawing upon all 6 criteria, a composite figure of USR is then produced. Australia is ranked 1st; the UK 2nd and Denmark 3rd, whilst Austria and Spain are ranked 16th and 17th respectively (see Table1 below). We can also see rankings based on specific criteria (Table 2 below).



There is much to be said for this intervention by The Lisbon Council – not the least being that it opens up debates about the role and purposes of universities. Over the past few months there have been numerous heated public interventions about this matter – from whether universities should be little more than giant patenting offices to whether they should be managers of social justice systems.

And though there are evident shortcomings (such as the lack of clarity about what might count as a university; the view that a university-based education is the most suitable form of education to produce a knowledge-based economy and society; what is the equity/access etc range within any one country, and so on), the USR does, at least, place issues like ‘lifelong learning’, ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’ on the reform agenda for universities across Europe. It also sends a message that it has a set of values that currently are not reflected in the two key ranking systems that it would like to advance.

However, the big question now is whether universities will see value in this kind of ranking system for its wider systemic, as opposed to institutional, possibilities, even if it is as a basis for discussing what are universities for and how might we produce more equitable knowledge societies and economies.

Susan Robertson and Roger Dale

6 thoughts on “‘University Systems Ranking (USR)’: an alternative ranking framework from EU think-tank

  1. Pingback: GlobalHigherEd

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