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

15 thoughts on “Why now? Making markets via the THE World Reputation Rankings

  1. This post helped to shed light on rankings and how they are for marketing purposes instead of really helping students choose the best institution for what they would like to pursue in their life goals. These rankings and the university’s use of them walk a fine line in being all about consumerism and actually helping the consumer.

  2. Pingback: The Times Higher Education Research Rankings | HESA

  3. Nice article…very informative, but I am wondering if the quality of education one receives is directly linked to the ranking of the College/University one attends. In other words, if I attend a College that is poorly ranked, does it mean that my education is also poor?

  4. Good points Antonio and mw. The existence of most colleges and universities are to help the communities from local to national. With the vast variations on cultures and missions in each how could you even set up a ranking system. It is almost comparing apples and oranges. The university I am at now for my master is perfect for me. I chose it not for the ranking or location but for the curriculum and education I need to be effective in my town. I am glad for the article, I used to take note on rankings when choosing universities for my children.

  5. Absolutely right, Kris. My OECD colleagues find that a three-year cycle is quite sufficent for the PISA assessment of school students. If we could spend a little more energy on evaluating teaching and learning outcomes and a little less on the annual rankings hoopla we would all be better informed.

  6. This is a great article and continues to point out the issues around ranking systems. They are more subjective than objective. More importantly they are about business and profits than about helping an industry like higher education. How does ranking really help education in a world system especially when education systems in the world are not equal. In the US it is a competitive environment even in the education industry, therefore, that alone will help all institutions perform better otherwise they’ll loss customers. If you don’t mind here are some thoughts from a colleague. http://www.eli360.com/uncategorized/usnewsrankings/

  7. i agree with Erik that these ranking systems are more subjective than objective. Unfortunately, most individuals, particularly those searching for an institution, view the findings as objective research.

  8. I found this article on college ranking and the positive improvement of learning and research outcomes intriguing. I am curious, if there are correlations among high ranking universities and William H. Bergquist and Kenneth Pawlak (2008) six cultures of academy?

    Bergquist, W. H., & Pawlak, K. (2008). Engaging the six cultures of the academy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  9. Kris , I agree with you that there are many cons to ranking, although I believe we should not forget the pros. And Antonio, my opinion is that rankings are not totally relevant to the kind of education you receive. Many universities may perform very well on the teaching, but may not move up the ranking because of the other criteria.

  10. In this post, the author continues the attack on world university rankings by questioning whether or not they actually have a beneficial effect on the students and the quality of the education; and I agree. I believe THE should rather assess each college’s position on an individual basis. Rather than determining which college is best, we should ensure that all colleges are moving forward in the right direction. Then, instead of having one “best” (just a title, after all), we’ll have thousands of “betters”; and that is what higher education really needs.

  11. I would have to agree. Ratings is marketing tool. Getta: I would have to agree with you regarding the statement that rankings is totally relevant.

  12. Great article and points Kris, and I also enjoyed the comments from everyone else as well. I do believe that ranking lists, such as this and others, do serve a purpose, but not quite what it may lead people to believe. As far as prestige is concerned, is Harvard the most prestigious of institutions? Most would argue that it is; that is a no-brainer. However, in most cases, information from these rankings is used, by the institutions, for marketing the institution and it’s “value”. However, these rankings also contribute to a more commercialized higher education and competitiveness between institutions. I am all for competition between institutions for students, but with an ever-increasing focus on competition, institutions can tend to lose focus on what is important; providing students with the knowledge, learning, information, and tools necessary to help them grown, mature, and become fully functional and successful contributors to society.

  13. I have to agree with mw and Lynnahr and echo Antonio’s question. What do these rankings really mean to students? I don’t think it gives students a clear picture of if the universilty will be the best one for them. Afterall, Harvard is not the best place for all students even if they can get in, yet it is ranked number one. Does that mean that if I don’t attend Harvard I’m getting less of an education? No.

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