‘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

OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: a ‘problem/solution toolkit’ with problems?

Last week, or to be precise – on the 9th September at 11.00 Paris time, the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), launched its ‘annual snapshot’ of the sector, Education at a Glance 2008. Within hours, the wheels of the media industry around the globe were pouring out stories of shame, fame, defeat and victory, whilst politicians in their respective countries were galvanized into action – either defending their own decisions or blaming a previous regime.

As previous entries in GlobalHigherEd (see here and here and here, as examples) argue, global indicators increasingly matter, not because they are always able to tell us much that is useful, but they work as a powerful disciplinary tool on nations. This, in turn, provides the issuing agent, in this case the OECD – ostensibly a ‘collective learning machinery’ – with an important mechanism for influencing the form and scope of education policies and programs around the globe. This is the tangible stuff of globalization – but this problem/solution toolkit is not without its own epistemological problems. Let’s take a look at two countries reported on this week – which headlined the OECD’s Report in the following way.

In the UK, the BBC and the Telegraph focused on the graduate league table, and the fact that the UK has not fared particularly well. The evidence? In 2000, the UK ranked 4th in the world in the number of school-leavers going to university. By 2006, this had plummeted to 12th.

Graeme Paton of the Telegraph reported on an interview with Andreas Schliecher, the OECD’s architect of Education at a Glance. According to Dr. Schliecher, the UK has major problems in producing school leavers with sufficient quality of credentials, whilst other countries have managed to sort out these problems and were already in the fast lane, leaving the UK behind.

Ministers canvassed by the Telegraph, however, insist that they were tackling the shortfall by encouraging more pupils to go to university and by pointing out the OECD good news story for the UK, that university graduates in the UK aged 25-64 earned 59 per cent more than other people – well above the national average.

In Canada, the influential Macleans magazine reported that in the OECD Education at a Glance comparisons, Canada was one of the few countries with the highest percentage of its population having completed post-secondary education. However, we are also given another statistic, and that is that the earnings advantage gained from completing post-secondary education in Canada had decreased in recent years and was quite low compared to other OECD countries. This is reflected in the lower average private rate-of-return on investment in post-secondary education relative to other nations in the OECD.

Let’s dwell, and not just ‘glance’, at these figures for a moment, and ask what is being reported here by the OECD:

  • competitive economies need a more highly educated workplace to perform more demanding work;
  • all countries need to encourage their young people to go to university and complete a degree; and
  • the incentives for this expenditure (which is increasingly being paid by families) are that there will be a higher rate-of-return to the student than if the student had not gone to university.

However, as we can see from our example above, countries with high levels of graduation (which the OECD says is good) report increasingly lower returns to graduates (ah…and is this not bad?).

Now, this is where the underlying human capital/homo-economicus rationale underpinning the OECD’s Education at a Glance begins to falter – for it cannot explain why it is that following the OECD’s prescriptions – of a high level of enrolment in higher education – reduces the overall earnings to the individual rather than increasing it.

While not one that is acknowledged in the repertoire of the OECD’s ‘problem/solution toolkit’ approach, this is where a sociological analysis is particularly helpful. As sociologists of education (see Phil Brown and Simon Marginson) have shown using Fred Hirsch’s insights on ‘positional goods’ tied to social status in his book The Social Limits to Growth, an advantage will only have economic value when no-one else has it. That is, its value depends on its scarcity. In other words, if we all have a graduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace compared with when only half of us have one. This is part of the dynamic, for example, underlying degree inflation.

There’s also another issue, and this is the assumption that jobs in the ‘new knowledge economy’ will require us all to have graduate qualifications. However, the Confederation of British Industries (reported in the UK Guardian newspaper on the 17th Sept), disagrees, arguing that universities were producing far too many graduates leaving more than a million people in jobs for which they were overqualified. They argue that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK, but only 9 million graduate jobs.

The deeper, and more tricky, question for policymakers now becomes: do we encourage everyone to hop onto the same credential treadmill with fewer and fewer returns and potentially higher levels of indebtedness? To be sure, there are important outcomes for individuals of a university education. However this experience is becoming more and more expensive, and the promised lifetime earnings are likely to be less and less. And who will shoulder the cost? Families? Employers? The State? And, how might the state and interrnational organizations, like the OECD, legitimate more and more credential inflation when the current ‘knowledge economy’ discourse is showing it to be somewhat hollow?

Or, ought we not think through what a range of trajectories might be that distributes talent/skills/training and investments over a wider portfolio of education/training/career options than is currently being presented to us?

Susan Robertson