Abstracts: Reputation and ranking – the impact on institutional strategy and behaviour of international ranking tables


Rankings, outcome measures and institutional classifications: the new world order in higher education

Lead Speaker: Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne, Australia


The paper considers the potential conjunction of three elements:
(1) worldwide university rankings, where a credible system of comparing research performance is already in place;
(2) comparisons of institutional performance in teaching and learning and/or employment outcomes, now under discussion at OECD; and
(3) institutional classifications, already used in some countries such as the USA and China and currently under discussion in Europe.
There are many different possible forms of these administrative technologies, and their combination, with varying effects on institutional and system outcomes, qualities and competitiveness, and on the world ordering of higher education and research. The outcome could be more or less open to strategy-making, more or less egalitarian, and more or less general in the creation of incentives for improvement. The key question is how these developments might be joined and configured so as to lead to the optimum overall improvement in national systems and individual institutions.

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Rankings and the Battle for World Class Excellence: Institutional Strategies and Policy Choices

Panellist Speaker: Ellen Hazelkorn, Director, Dublin Institute of Technology, and Dean, Faculty of Applied Arts; Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Ireland


University rankings are creating a furore wherever or whenever they are published or mentioned. Politicians regularly refer to them as a measure of their nation’s economic strengths and aspirations, universities use them to help set or define targets mapping their performance against the various metrics, while academics use rankings to bolster their own professional reputation and status. What started out as an innocuous consumer product – aimed at undergraduate domestic students – has become both a manifestation and driver of the global battle for excellence.
Mounting evidence indicates that rankings are perceived as playing a critical role in enabling and facilitating universities to maintain and build reputation; that high-achieving students, and especially international and postgraduate students, use rankings to ‘short list’; and that external stakeholders use rankings to influence decisions about funding, sponsorship and recruitment/employment. Rankings-consciousness is rising rapidly because benefits and advantages are perceived to flow from high ranking. Conversely, ‘fear of falling’ and the negative publicity associated with it can be as great for highly-ranked or ambitious universities as non-appearance can be for others.
Higher education institutions face big strategic choices: Should we put resources into revising our curriculum or building up research, and if we focus on the former will we lose out because our competitors have focused on the latter? Should we use rankings to help improve our strategic planning or define our targets? Should we merge with another institution or re-organise our own institution?
This paper provides a comparative analysis of institutional experiences and responses drawing on a 2006 international survey, and interviews with HE leaders, staff, students and stakeholders in Germany, Australia and Japan during 2008. In addition to describing and examining institutional responses and options, the paper explores how the policy environment shapes institutional responses and behaviour.
The 2008 study has been conducted under the auspices of the Institute of Higher Education with funding from the Lumina Foundation, in association with IMHE and IAU.

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A Faustian contract? Institutional responses to national and international rankings

Panellist Speaker: Peter West, Secretary to the University of Strathclyde, UK


In the highly competitive international world of learning, universities make full use of favourable league table positions to strengthen their reputations. Yet are they, in so doing, entering into a Faustian Contract in which the long-term cost outweighs the short-term gain? Success in league tables comes at a cost in terms of accepting the orthodoxies of others instead of pursuing particular institutional missions linked to the particular priorities of the local community.

Based on recent surveys of institutional experience and on a new analysis of the impact of league tables on English Higher Education, this paper argues that if, as seems likely, rankings are here to stay, the shortcomings of the present approach must be acknowledged and addressed.

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Toward a Rankings Research Agenda

Panellist Speaker: Alisa Cunningham, Vice President for Research and Programs, Institute for Higher Education Policy, Washington, USA

Over the decades since college rankings first appeared, debates have surfaced about their methodologies, objectivity, impact on colleges and universities, and role in the structure of accountability within nations that use them. In recent years, as many countries have introduced tuition fees, and as tuition prices have escalated in the United States and elsewhere, rankings have been the focus of increased scrutiny. Although there has been significant research about the ways in which rankings might be improved, there has been less research on how rankings may impact students’ access to postsecondary education, their selection of particular colleges, and their paths to graduate school and/or employment. This paper outlines efforts to encourage ongoing research on and evaluation of ranking systems and their impact on policy and practice.

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