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This Just Published: Institutional rankings

by Chen Wang | Jan 17, 2018

This Just Published logo, 480 pixelsChen Wang is a ​doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests focus on the internationalization of higher education in China​.

Chen WangLim, M. A. (2017). The building of weak expertise: The work of global university rankers. Higher Education, 1-16
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View the journal article.

The global university rankings game, and so-called “world-class universities” that have emerged as a result, are catchy concepts often seen in websites, newspapers, and daily conversations. As much as university rankings have received criticism, those who produce rankings tables remain powerful in the field of higher education for their influence on global, national, and institutional policies. Numerous scholars have inquired about the impacts and flaws of some leading rankings tables, with a greater number highlighting flaws. However, how university rankers gather data, present it in ways that are relevant to their audience, and engage with critics from academia and the general public are still mysterious, in that the strategies they utilize to achieve their decisions are largely unknown. In his article, Lim studies how university rankers develop their expertise and work to produce new, better, and more relevant products. Drawing from a two-year field study of a specific university rankings organization, namely Times Higher Education (THE); interviews with key correspondents in the sector; and an analysis of related documents, Lim introduces the concept of “weak expertise.” This concept implies that university rankers constantly need to strengthen their expertise and stay relevant in the market through continued engagement with their principal audience.

Lim started his inquiry by looking at how university rankers build their expertise around the “science” of assessment. University rankers begin their work by conceptualizing “quality” in higher education using various indicators. How they define “quality” is generally sensitive to national and international policy discussions. By translating their audience’s political concerns into the language of “experts,” university rankers gain legitimacy and produce facts and viewpoints that are sold to the general public. For instance, in response to heated discussions on university competitiveness in the knowledge economy, THE created indicators to measure universities’ ability to help industry through innovations, inventions, and consultancies.

During a series of conferences, Lim observed that THE invited high-level university leaders and policymakers to offer feedback and help THE make adjustments to its methodology and publications. These conferences provided a window for Lim to observe a network of rankings experts and see how they meet and socialize with their audiences, in order to understand how “weak expertise” is generated, hardened, challenged, and defended. By building a “community of ranking practice” through such gatherings, university rankers are not only influencing university leaders, but they are also actively creating spaces for direct dialogue, debates, and sharing of best practices between themselves and their primary readers, namely university leaders.

Lim also provides some context into how the ownership of data used to generate THE’s rankings has shifted over the years, which directly resulted in THE utilizing different strategies to gather data. For example, in 2015, Thomson Reuters, who had been THE’s data provider since 2009, published its own rankings on the ‘Top 100 World’s Most Innovative Universities,’ by taking advantage of its longstanding history of collecting data on patent and other industry-related products. Facing competition and a challenge from its data provider, THE chose to partner with Elsevier to produce its own innovative university rankings in 2015. As the integrity of data, complemented by its correct interpretation and presentation, were crucial to cementing THE’s claims of expertise, THE invested in building its data collection and analysis team. By having own its own data generating capacity, THE therefore secured the sustainability of its rankings and overall business model. To build trust, THE hosts conferences, travels to various universities, and maintains online media platforms where editors can dialogue directly with their audience.

In the context of rankings tables continuously shaping the landscape of higher education across the globe, Lim calls on higher education leaders to reflect, resist, and most importantly, shape the metrics by which they accept to be “judged.” Rankers are only weak experts, in that they constantly seek external validation and strengthen their expertise through a sustained engagement with their principal audiences. Rather than assuming that all of the trust-building mechanisms have solidified the hold of THE over its audience, these can be seen as signs of a constant struggle for trust and credibility.

While Lim offers an intriguing study of THE’s methods, THE only represents one type of institution that produces rankings tables, and ​its mission is primarily driven by revenue generation. It would be interesting to see further studies on public or nonprofit institutions, such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a public university and the publisher of Academic Ranking of World Universities, on their motivations for producing rankings and their methods of building expertise.

Shattock, M. (2017). The ‘world class’ university and international ranking systems: What are the policy implications for governments and institutions?. Policy Reviews in Higher Education1(1), 4-21.

View the journal article.

Echoing the rankings phenomenon discussed by Lim, Shattock examines the world-class university movement and the impact of international rankings systems on governments and universities. By drawing on examples from countries around the globe and reviewing their higher education systems, Shattock identifies three sets of pressures that have encouraged greater emphasis on the idea of world-class individual institutions, rather than whole systems of higher education. First has been the association of innovation with university research and the consensus around the need to concentrate research in fewer institutions. Second is increasing recognition of the benefits of institutional autonomy. The last, and probably the most intense, pressure is the publication of various league tables on institutions, rather than entire systems. Despite critics of rankings and their methodologies, the rankings system has a powerful impact on the way institutions perceive themselves and are perceived by others, in terms of reputation and the “quality” of their teaching and research. 

Embedded in this context, Shattock adds his perspective on what characteristics universities should possess to achieve “world-class” status. Besides attributes most scholars already agree upon, such as a high concentration of talent, abundant resources, and favorable governance, Shattock argues that the age of the institution, its physical location, and whether its external political climate supports free expression and academic freedom also matter. This discussion on the characteristics of a world-class university precedes a discussion of policy implications for universities seeking to achieve world-class status and the difficulties involved.

Various approaches have been observed throughout the different contexts. Upgrading existing institutions has been the most difficult, due to the presence of past staff recruited for previous institutional roles and the persistence of organizational culture attuned to a particular style of operation. The other approach to creating a world-class university is literally launching a new institution born with the very mission of being world-class. However, establishing and developing a new institution is a long-haul process; thus governments must be careful when envisioning new institutions and hoping they will leapfrog existing high-caliber universities or even join them in the constellation of world-class universities.

Similar to the business world, universities engage in acquisitions and mergers to improve their standing to attract more talented faculty and students and boost external funding streams. Referencing several examples of institutions around the world, Shattock reminds policymakers and university leaders that while mergers may increase the size of institutions and add to the breadth of their subject offerings, they do not necessarily improve universities’ talent base. Rather, mergers may be disruptive and require lengthy periods of cultural integration and assimilation. To propel an institution up the rankings lists, university leadership must work toward enlisting and keeping renowned scholars who bring exceptional resources and help in sustaining institutional reputation. Additionally, top-ranked universities ​should possess consistent and fair administrative and academic policies.

Finally, the paper outlined the process and advantages of institutions developing more achievable goals. Though perhaps an overused concept, the notion of a “world-class university” offers opportunities for both institutional transformation and competition. Thus, policymakers and university leaders must be realistic when setting goals for middle-ranking regional universities and realize the importance of building and maintaining a quality higher education system, rather than be distorted by competition in a market determined by positions on rankings tables.

Marginson, S. (2017). The world-class multiversity: Global commonalities and national characteristics. Frontiers of Education in China12(2), 233-260.


View the journal article.

In this paper, Marginson interprets world-class universities as nationally-embedded universities closely engaged in the global knowledge system. It is a more globalized version of the multi-purpose, multi-disciplinary research and teaching institution described by Clark Kerr as a “multiversity” in his classic book The Uses of the University.

Marginson criticizes scholars who use the norms of their home countries as the generic tool to compare and analyze other higher education systems around the world; in his words, this represents "methodological nationalism" in global higher education research. By doing so, it blocks views from any feature of the higher education landscape that is contextually distinctive from the system in one’s home country, and treats those as a deficit.

Neoliberal theory views the worldwide education sector as a competition between higher education institutions (HEIs) in the global market, while institutional theory understands HEIs as institutions that are uniformly influenced by globalization and are predominantly top-down in character. Critical power economies, one of the three interpretations Marginson uses to understand global higher education, recognize the insights neoliberal theory and institutional theory have provided, but criticize them for downplaying the role of the nation-state. In the critical political economy approach, universities provide resources for national economic innovations, global competitiveness, and a national framework of social opportunity. World-class universities are seen as self-determining actors with agency that respond, imitate, and initiate within the global setting, rather than being blindly moved around by global forces exercised by international agencies, such as the World Bank and UNESCO. At the same time they are positioned in, and shaped by, nation-state agendas, and funding.

Notwithstanding that they are manifested in various ways, higher education systems and world-class universities have been touched by globalization, organizational modernization, and marketization. All world-class universities are continually affected by globalization, in terms of the following: cross-border flows of knowledge, ideas, people, and capital; global visions, comparisons, and rankings; and evolving global competition and cooperation. Organizational modernization, otherwise known as New Public Management, led institutions to adopt management forms such as executive leadership, performance management, quality assurance, and regulated competition. While its impact is less universal than either organizational modernization or world-class universities, neoliberal marketization influences reforms in higher education by quasi-market systems, extending beyond competition to private financing and user charges, the fostering of campus entrepreneurship, and growth in the role of the private sector.

In the latter half of his paper, Marginson draws readers’ attention to Chinese world-class universities. With eight universities listed in world’s top 500 in Academic Ranking on World Universities in 2005, and then up to 41 in 2016, Chinese higher education has astonished the world with its rocket-speed improvements in English publication and high-quality paper citations in physical science and engineering. Chinese achievements on research performance undermined assumptions that only American or Western governance and academic cultures are compatible with stellar intellectual creativity in peer-group mediated science. That said, is it sufficient to constitute a distinctive Chinese model of world-class university in the post-Confucian Chinese civilizational region? Marginson’s answer was probably not. In his view, Chinese universities have not yet developed a distinctive teaching/learning mission, nor fully joined the national traditions in medicine and humanities to global disciplinary conversations. As disciplinary imbalances continue in the US and UK and are more apparent in post-Confucian systems, Marginson argues that the idea of world-class universities will be a more formidable powerhouse for soft power building, for as long as China develops its own comprehensive world-class universities with free and fecund social sciences and humanities.

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