Image: Micheal D Beckwith (Unsplash)

This week, Times Higher Education announced the results of its University Rankings for 2021. Alongside the QS Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or Shanghai Ranking, it is one of the most relevant providers of university benchmarks. Given how scholarly work around benchmarks explains how this recent proliferation of, global benchmarks is driven by a certain appeal of numbers as a way to translate complex normative values into representers of unbiased information and facts. It is important to understand these assumptions and what influences they have on the international political economy. 

Firstly, given that rankings are primarily used to measure research performance, they rely on highly diverse data on citation counts, research grants and scientists’ or students’ judgments. This inevitably skews them towards research-focused universities which might overlook the quality of teaching. This also skews them towards universities with a specific focus towards the natural sciences, as there are more journals for these disciplines. These universities therefore get more citations and thus tend to fare better in the rankings. Given this, it is clear that at best, rankings measure very limited aspects of research output and have some methodological issues but are not an appropriate method for assessing or comparing quality amongst different universities. 

Despite this, rankings do hold a pre-eminent place in the international political economy. They can often shape the distribution of economic resources in academia which, in turn, might point out to another purpose of the rankings: as a signal for institutional investors where rankings can become more of a “trust us with your money” indicator than a “trust us with your education” one. University rankings become essential in determining who gets what. This is particularly important given how competitive borrowing and access to capital markets are, especially in market-orientated university systems, such as the UK (United Kingdom), Australia, Canada and the USA (United States of America), to fund research and infrastructure in these countries.

For example, in 2018 the University of Portsmouth secured £100m from investors through a private placement of debt, the importance of the university ranking was emphasised in the press release:

According to The Economist’s own ranking of UK universities, the university does more to boost its graduates’ earnings than any other university in the UK. The university was ranked 37th in the 2018 Guardian University Guide (having risen for the third successive year from 43rd in last year’s guide and 49th in 2016) and for the third consecutive year. It ranked in the top 100 young universities in the world in the Times Higher Education ranking of universities, for universities less than 50 years old. 

Moreover, in 2017 the University of Oxford raised £750m from its first-ever bond issues in 2017. These 100 years bonds secured an attractive 2.54 per cent yield and the university could borrow at attractive levels thanks to its AAA rating which was partly justified given how “Oxford’s exceptional research will continue to support its very strong brand and attract significant funding” according to Moody’s. Additionally, when assessing the University of Manchester’s credit rating in 2013, Moody’s claim that “[t]he University has ambitious goals to enhance its international research reputation and become one of the top 25 research institutions in the world by 2020” as quoted as one of the reasons behind their AA1 rating. As another example, Harvard’s AAA rating, given by Moody’s is a reflection of “exceptional strategic positioning as a globally renowned comprehensive research university”, in other words, its global ranking. Money, it seems, follows research as signaled by rankings. We can assume that investors are reassured by higher rankings because they are an important source of consumer intelligence about something where precious little other information is available. It is important to stress this because this is where the power and influence of university rankings lie. Given the uncertainty on which universities constitute a valuable investment asset, making interests behind the decision making at firms uncertain. Benchmarks reduce uncertainty and construct stability through the development and deployment of governing ideas, institutions, norms and conventions and also create anchoring effects by establishing referents that shape how different actors subsequently think about and see specific issues. “If you do not know what university you want to invest in, just take a quick look at this ranking we have compiled for your convenience”. Whilst purely speculative, this seems to paint a rather different picture from university rankings, considering that the three most important ones are dominated by Anglo-Saxon market-oriented universities (US, UK, Australia, and Canada).

In this way, university rankings have what Susan Strange calls “structural power” or the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states or agents have to operate. By ranking the top global universities such benchmarks can shape not only who gets funded and what gets funded, but other aspects of the global economy. Like, which graduates will become the top earners and ultimately help to perpetuate a vicious cycle that enforces a very stable hierarchy at a global level where a minority of universities hoard the majority of funding.

University rankings are not only useful at evaluating if one university is better than another (a ridiculous notion), they can be harmful by making harmful decisions over the relative merits of different values of how to organise a society that reproduce inequalities at the university, on individual levels and globally. I say we can do without them.

Julio holds an MA in International Political Economy from the University of Warwick. He is currently working as an academic in Mexico City and is in the process of pursuing his PHD.

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