Are we witnessing a key moment in the reworking of the global higher education & research landscape?

ACEissuebriefOver the last several weeks more questions about the changing nature of the relative position of national higher education and research systems have emerged.  These questions have often been framed around the notion that the US higher education system (assuming there is one system) might be in relative decline, that flagship UK universities (national champions?) like Oxford are unable to face challenges given the constraints facing them, and that universities from ’emerging’ regions (East and South Asia, in particular) are ‘rising’ due to the impact of continual or increasing investment in higher education and research.

Select examples of such contributions include this series in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

and these articles associated with the much debated THE-QS World University Rankings 2009:

EvidenceUKcoverThe above articles and graphics in US and UK higher education media outlets were preceded by this working paper:

a US report titled:

and one UK report titled:

There are, of course, many other calls for increased awareness, or deep and critical reflection.  For example, back in June 2009, four congressional leaders in the USA:

asked the National Academies to form a distinguished panel to assess the competitive position of the nation’s research universities. “America’s research universities are admired throughout the world, and they have contributed immeasurably to our social and economic well-being,” the Members of Congress said in a letter delivered today. “We are concerned that they are at risk.”….

The bipartisan congressional group asked that the Academies’ panel answer the following question: “What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?”

Recall that the US National Academies produced a key 2005 report (Rising Above the Gathering Storm) “which in turn was the basis for the “America COMPETES Act.” This Act created a blueprint for doubling funding for basic research, improving the teaching of math and science, and taking other steps to make the U.S. more competitive.” On this note see our 16 June 2008 entry titled ‘Surveying US dominance in science and technology for the Secretary of Defense‘.

RisingStormTaken together, these contributions are but a sample of the many expressions of concern being expressed in 2009 in the Global North (especially the US & UK) about the changing geography of the global higher education and research landscape.

These types of articles and reports shed light, but can also raise anxiety levels (as they are sometimes designed to do).  The better of them attempt to ensure that the angsts being felt in the long dominant Global North are viewed with a critical eye, and that people realize that this is not a “zero-sum game” (as Philip Altbach puts it in the Chronicle’sAmerica Falling: Longtime Dominance in Education Erodes‘). For example, the shifting terrain of global research productivity is partially a product of increasing volumes of collaboration and human mobility across borders, while key global challenges are just that – global in nature and impossible to attend to unless global teams of relatively equitable capacities are put together. Moreover, greater transnational education and research activity and experience arguably facilitates a critical disposition towards the most alarmist material, while concurrently reinforcing the point that the world is changing, albeit very unevenly, and that there are also many positive changes associated with a more dispersed higher education and research landscape.

We’ll do our best to post links to new global mappings like these as they emerge in the future.  Please ensure you let us know what is being published, be it rigorous, critical, analytical, alarmist, self-congratulatory, etc., and we’ll profile it on GlobalHigherEd.  The production of discourses on this new global higher education and research landscape is a key component of the process of change itself.  Thus we need to be concerned not just with the content of such mappings, but also the logics underlying the production of such mappings, and the institutional relations that bring such mappings into view for consumption.

Kris Olds

THE-QS World University Rankings 2009: Year 6 of market making

THE-QSemailWell, an email arrived today and I just could not help myself…I clicked on the THE-QS World University Rankings 2009 links that were provided to see who received what ranking.  In addition, I did a quick Google scan of news outlets and weblogs to see what spins were already underway.

The THE-QS ranking seems to have become the locomotive for the Times Higher Education, a higher education newsletter that is published in the UK once per week.  In contrast to the daily Chronicle of Higher Education, and the daily Inside Higher Ed (both based in the US), the Times Higher Education seems challenged to provide quality content of some depth even on its relatively lax once per week schedule.  I spent four years in the UK in the mid-1990s, and can’t help but note the decline in the quality of the coverage of UK higher education news over the last decade plus.

It seems as if the Times Higher has decided to allocate most of its efforts to promoting the creation and propagation of this global ranking scheme in contrast to providing detailed, analytical, and critical coverage of issues in the UK, let alone in the European Higher Education Area. Six steady years of rankings generate attention, advertising revenue, and enhance some aspects of power and perceived esteem.  But, in the end, where is the Times Higher in analyzing the forces shaping the systems in which all of these universities are embedded, or the complex forces shaping university development strategies?  Rather, we primarily seem to get increasingly thin articles, based on relatively limited original research, heaps of advertising (especially jobs), and now regular build-ups to the annual rankings frenzy. In addition, their partnership with QS Quacquarelli Symonds is leading to new regional rankings; a clear form of market-making at a new unexploited geographic scale.  Of course there are some useful insights generated by rankings, but the rankings attention is arguably making the Times Higher lazier and dare I say, irresponsible, given the increasing significance of higher education to modern societies and economies.

In addition, I continue to be intrigued by how UK-based analysts and institutions seem infatuated with the term “international”, as if it necessarily means better quality than “national”. See, for example, the “international” elements of the current ranking in the figure below:


Leaving aside my problems with the limited scale of the survey numbers (9,386 academics represent the “world’s” academics?; 3,281 firm representatives represent the “world’s” employers?), and the approach to weighting, why does the proportion of “international” faculty and students necessarily enhance the quality of university life?

Some universities, especially in Australasia and the UK, seek high proportions of international students to compensate for declining levels of government support, and weak levels of extramural funding via research income (which provides streams of income via overhead charges). Thus the higher number of international students may be, in some cases, inversely related to the quality of the university or the health of the public higher education system in which the university is embedded.

In addition, in some contexts, universities are legally required to limit “non-resident” student intake given the nature of the higher education system in place.  But in the metrics used here universities with the incentives and the freedom to let in large numbers of foreign students , for reasons other than the quality of said students, are rewarded with a higher rank.

The discourse of “international” is elevated here, much like it was in the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK, with “international” codeword for higher quality.  But international is just that – international – and it means nothing more than that unless we assess how good they (international students and faculty) are, what they contribute to the educational experience, and what lasting impacts they generate.

In any case, the THE-QS rankings are out.  The relative position of universities in the rankings will be debated about, and used to provide legitimacy for new or previously unrecognized claims. But it’s really the methodology that needs to be unpacked, as well as the nature and logics of the rankers, versus just the institutions that are being ranked.

Kris Olds