SIHEP Hosts Discussion of International University Rankings

The Steinhart Institute for Higher Education Policy recently hosted a discussion on international university rankings and the race for world-class status with Professor Jürgen Enders, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, Netherlands. His respondents were Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Science (NYU) and Robert H. Frank, professor of economics and Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management (Cornell).

The quest for higher rankings among universities has not been solely an American phenomenon, said Enders. In recent decades, universities across the globe have begun competing in a rankings “arms race,” devoting more money and resources to improve their standings on such rankings as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Rankings are popular, Enders argued, because of their potential to create order and to reduce complexity. Rankings, in other words, provide useful shortcuts that aid in decision-making. In this view, higher education comprises a multi-actor game in a vast field; rankings structure this field.

The problem, as Enders and other see it, is that those who set the criteria for the rankings are setting the standards for higher education, which may or may not conform to a university’s true mission. Enders offered as an example the fact that the Times Higher Education ranking is based 40 percent on “peer appraisal,” a suspicious methodology given the low response rates to such surveys. The methods for ranking universities set up a beauty contest that favors older, larger, comprehensive universities and likely affect the institutional strategies and policies that universities pursue.

The costs involved of such an over-reliance on rankings leads to financial waste, according to Enders, as universities pour more investment into improving their own rankings. Such a system, though, produces few winners (since only a handful of players can occupy top positions) and many losers. Other costs include a loss of diversity, as universities seek to imitate their peers, and subordination of other missions of the university, such as improving equity and access and facilitating regional development.

Enders admits that rankings are necessary and that we are unlikely to “turn back the clock.” He offered some suggestions for reformulating rankings in a way that better reflect the workings of a university. Among his suggestions were more emphasis on research, teaching, and knowledge transmission within the university, as well as a “groupings” approach that emphasizes similarities, rather than insignificant differences, among universities.

In their responses, Calhoun and Frank both agreed with Enders’ assessment of international rankings while shedding light on different aspects of the phenomenon. For Calhoun, rankings tend to reinforce an existing hierarchy, leading to a vicious cycle. For instance, students may be drawn to a university that ranks high due to the research accomplishments of its faculty, overlooking the fact that an intensely research-focused faculty may be less effective teachers in the classroom. Calhoun also argued that the rankings system is one that is driven by inequality and reinforces a university degree as a “positional good,” i.e. one whose value increases insofar as the value of degrees from other universities decline. Ultimately, rankings set up a conservative incentive structure. According to Calhoun, “The privileging of research is an enemy of teaching … teaching becomes a less important mission of a university relative to other things.”

Frank acknowledged that while most economists believe more competition yields a more efficient marketplace, his view is that there are instances, such as university rankings, where more competition may lead to harmful results. His view towards competition, he says, tends to be influenced less by Adam Smith and more by Charles Darwin, who “had a more nuanced view.” In the Darwinian view, increased competition may result in traits that, while helpful for the individual, prove to be harmful for the species. The competition for a higher ranking may similarly lead universities to take on traits that run counter to their missions.

Pictured left to right: Enders; SIHEP director Ann Marcus; Calhoun; Frank.