The number of people going abroad to study had doubled in recent years and has now passed 4 Million.
Universities used to insist that they were not interested in ranking positions. Now, however, only a handful of the global elite maintain a lofty silence when international rankings are published.
That does not mean that academics like them – there is a coterie of determined critics (some better informed than others) and the ranking organisations themselves acknowledge that there are important aspects of university life that they cannot capture satisfactorily. But most universities now use rankings not only in their promotional material, but also in choosing international partners and often in their own policy-making.
Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, head of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology, and a longstanding analyst of rankings, produced a report on their influence for the European University Association (EUA) last year. Her conclusion was that because of the significance attached to being listed in the rankings, they were having a growing and significant impact on institutional decision-making and actions.
“International experience shows that rankings have become a significant driver of opinion formation and decision-making at national and institutional level,” Professor Hazelkorn wrote. “The influence of rankings differs from country to country, and institution to institution – but there are few which have been immune to their effects.”
The report found that the QS World University Rankings were the most influential of a growing number of such exercises. More than half of all European respondents included them among those having most impact on their institution. Professor Hazelkorn’s survey also showed that international rankings had become more important to universities than the national equivalents.
A third of universities had a unit that was responsible for monitoring ranking positions and a quarter discussed the institution’s performance and prospects regularly in specially convened meetings. The respondents identified a wide range of audiences for the rankings: students were thought to be most influenced by them – 78 per cent thought so – but at least half named prospective researchers; partner or prospective partner institutions; the ministry or authority responsible for higher education; prospective teaching staff; parents; benefactors, sponsors and investors; as well as funding bodies or similar institutions.
Two-thirds of the respondents felt that rankings had helped their university to enhance its public image, and at least half thought they had assisted in establishing academic partnerships, fostering academic collaboration and developing internal quality assurance. The report uncovered very few reports of negative impact on institutions from rankings, although there were knock-on effects such as funding reductions or negative media reporting.
Professor Hazelkorn found that the influence of rankings correlated with the competitiveness of the national higher education sector, particularly where there was a hierarchical system in which some institutions had much higher status than others. It was dangerous to generalise about rankings or their impact, she said, but there was no doubt that universities were paying considerable attention to them.
The primary reason for this is obvious: higher education has become truly global, both in terms of student and academic mobility. The number of people going abroad to study had doubled in recent years and has now passed 4 million. Some studies expect the figure to reach 7 million by 2025.
— Top Universities (@TopUnis) May 23, 2016