International Studies: How America’s Mania for College Rankings Went Global

August 26, 2009

Five years ago, Hashim Yaacob, the vice chancellor of the University of Malaya, was on top of the world. In a recently published international ranking of universities, UM had placed eighty-ninth among 200 top institutions. This was a big deal, not only for the university, but for Malaysia as a whole—for a country that was bent on creating a knowledge economy, it was a nice validation of the progress it had made. Yaacob ordered banners reading “UM a world’s top 100 university” and had them hung around that city.

UM’s moment of glory was fleeting—one year long, to be exact. When the next international ranking came out, UM had plummeted, from eighty-ninth to 169th.. In reality, universities don’t change that much from year to year. And indeed, UM’s drop turned out to be caused by a decline in a questionable measure of its reputation, plus the discovery and correction of an error the university itself had made. After the drop, UM was pilloried in the Malaysian press, and widespread calls for a royal commission of inquiry into the unfortunate episode followed. Within a few months, the vice chancellor, who had been vilified in the media, was effectively fired when he was not reappointed to a new term.

The instrument of Yaacob’s rise and fall was a periodical called the Times Higher Education Supplement, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (until a 2005 ownership change). For the past five years the newspaper has offered a ranking of universities around the world in a more-or-less open effort to duplicate internationally what U.S. News & World Report has done in the American higher education market. The impetus for the rankings was straightforward: “Particularly where research is concerned,” John O’Leary, the creator of the Times Higher rankings and the publication’s former editor, explained in an essay accompanying a recent installment, “Oxford and Cambridge are as likely to compare themselves with Harvard and Princeton as with other UK [institutions].” Universities are operating “at a time of unprecedented international mobility both by students and by academics”; furthermore, “governments all around the world have expressed an ambition to have at least one university among the international elite.”

Although Times Higher Education, as the publication is now called, wasn’t the first effort at producing international rankings, it has become the most controversial; its assessment of the global university pecking order is widely read not only among university administrators and students, but among government officials and politicians keen to assess their place in a world where educational achievement is a proxy for power. And for understandable reasons. Like most other economic sectors, higher education is fast becoming a global enterprise. Students and professors hopscotch from nation to nation more than ever. Western universities set up branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East, catering to huge demand for the best diplomas. In places like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, France, and Germany, a fierce race is in progress to create world-class research universities. Times Higher is now one of the chief de facto arbiters of who’s winning the knowledge industry competition.

In America, however, relatively few people have heard of the Times Higher rankings, even in academia. That’s partly the result of our famous insularity, partly the dominant place the U.S. News rankings still occupy in American higher education. Mostly, though, it’s due to a sense of invulnerability. American universities remain the unquestioned leaders in research and the top destination for international students. The biggest brand names among them routinely dominate the upper echelons of international rankings like Times Higher. We know we’re great.

Yet in this new world of mobility and competition, challenges to America’s educational primacy are inevitable—and international rankings are the means by which those challenges are most likely to arrive. Indeed, a process is already under way to expand international rankings beyond the metrics of reputation and research—in which U.S. schools do extremely well—to include measures of classroom learning. That could lead to some surprises for top dogs such as the United States, not to mention for other nations whose overall performance educating students and preparing graduates for the workforce may not match their justly admired strengths in other areas.

This shaking up of existing hierarchies—if it occurs—could be both traumatic and useful for the American higher education system. Rankings, for all their shortcomings, have the potential to be a very useful consumer tool in a border-free educational world. Done well, they can expose weaknesses in research, highlight lackluster classroom teaching, and give universities—including sometimes complacent American institutions—incentives to build the research and human capital on which so much innovation and economic growth depends. Global education markets, just like other markets, need information to function efficiently. But it needs to be the right information.

Read full article »

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Monthly. Copyright by Washington Monthly Publishing, LLC, 1200 18th Street, NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036 202.955.9010.