A Closer Look at University Ranking Systems : Global Perspectives

Leonella Massardi (Research and Communications Coordinator, Saksara)

Globalisation has spread throughout the world and it impacts many aspects of human life. The world appears often borderless and competition between societies is more rigorous. People adapt in order to survive and there is no other way but to change. Social change has been the logical consequence of the way people are adapting to the rapid emergence of globalisation and connectedness. 

One of the very human aspects that is influenced by global circumstances is higher education. Students are now more focussed on the development of their academic and personal skills in order to be more competitive in job market, and more globally prepared. This is particularly true of the populous emerging economies of Asia and South America. Candidates compete for the best institutions at home, and increasingly at better universities overseas. 

Universities are similarly under pressure to adapt. Universities throughout the world are facing increased competition for staff, students, research funding, philanthropy and operational funding. This competition has expanded from intellectual centres in Europe and North America, to rapidly important centres of excellence in Asia, Australasia and South America. All universities are under pressure to improve their performance, with many adopting standings in world university rankings as a measure of that improvement. Competition for international students and income, for research talent and staff, and for scarce funding is elevating the status of the rankings.  

The current international trend is to determine the quality of a university through world ranking systems, provided by various international institutions. The ranking systems typically referenced by the community are  The Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tung University (ARWU) , The QS World University Ranking, The Times Higher Education, World University Rankings (THE), The Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers for World Universities by Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan (HEEACT Ranking), and so on. 

The use of world ranking systems as a reference to determine the quality of the university it self has raised a long debate amongst education experts and scholars around the world.  There is extensive criticism related to each of the systems. For students, parents, student advisors, and academic experts it is important to get a rudimentary understanding of the ranking system in order to use the data proportionally. 

The Saksara research team have collected some useful reports and articles related to University World Ranking Systems that are worth reading to help you better understand, and approach rankings more critically. 

  1. Mu-Hsuan Huang from National Taiwan University has written a good comparison of the rankings systems from the perspective of their weaknesses in making reasonable analyses of actual research performance. You can access the full article here:
    Mu-Hsuan Huang, 2011 ‘Comparison of Three Major Academic Rankings for World Universities: From a Research Evaluation Perspective’, Journal of  Library and Information Studies, vol., 9 no. 1, pp. 1-25

  2. Considering the significance of analysis in World Ranking Systems, UNESCO (2013) published  a very comprehensive report entitled Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education : Uses and Misuses . UNESCO gave a detail explanation on methodological matter, the implications and applications, and also international perspectives on ranking systems, using some cases from America, Asia, or even Africa. If you would like to understand the broader implications of the ranking systems, Saksara Research Team suggest you to read the following article.

    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 2013, Ranking and Accountability in Higher Education : Uses and Misuses, UNESCO, Paris.

  3. Another report which attempt to comprehensively evaluate the ranking systems is the European University Association (EUA) Report on Rankings 2013, entitled Global University Rankings and Their Impact (Report II). This report questions the omissions of data on most of the world’s universities, the methodologies of the rankings systems, and the implications of the disciplines assessed and ommitted. Get the full version here: 

    European University Association 2013, Global University Rankings and Their Impact : Report II. European University Association asbl, Available from : <http://www.eua.be/Libraries/Publications_homepage_list/EUA_Global_University_Rankings_and_Their_Impact_-_Report_II.sflb.ashx> . [6 August 2014].  
  4. European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC) also made a critical assessment on The Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University compared to the immediate European alternative, the British THES. Analysis was mainly focused on the context of how well the systems measure Europe’s universities. JRC analysis (2008) was based on 88 universities for which both the THES and Jiao Tong rank were available. If you want to read more about the report, you can see them here :

    Joint Research Centre 2008, Higher Education Rankings : Robustness Issues and Critical Assessment, European Commission , Available from : <http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/111111111/12694/1/eur23487_saisana_dhombres.pdf> . [6 August 2014].

  5. The US Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in 2007 also conducted an inquiry on College and University Ranking Systems. It is more focused on the context of America Colleges and Universities and the impact of higher education rankings on students access, choice, and opportunity. To deeper your understanding on America’s context, you can read the following report:

    Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) 2007, College and University Ranking Systems : Global Perspectives and American Challenges, IHEP, Available from : <http://www.ihep.org/%5Cassets%5Cfiles%5C/publications/A-F/CollegeRankingSystems.pdf>. [6 August 2014].

  6. Ioannidis et al offer another perspective on the uses of university ranking systems, which analysed systems in some critical depth. The article can be found here: 

    Ioannidis et al 2007, ‘International Ranking Systems for Universities and Institutions : a Critical Appraisal’, BMC Medicine, vol. 5, no. 30. Available from : <http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/5/30> [6 August 2014].

Saksara research team hopes that all of these reports provide you with a better understanding of university ranking systems and help you better inform your use of the rankings. If you require any advice related to the uses of the data from the ranking systems, or some advice related to your education and career please don’t hesitate to contact our professional advisors here for an appointment.