Book review: Global University Rankings and the Politics of Knowledge

Paul Greatrix, Registrar at The University of Nottingham, reviews Global University Rankings and the Politics of Knowledge which explores a range of research on the impact of the 'education industry' on HE.

Global university rankings have been around for almost 20 years now. They started back in 2003 with Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which was followed by the Times Higher Education world ranking and then the QS global league table.

It is fair to say that these international rankings, along with their domestic counterparts, have few fans in higher education. Some would like to reform them whilst others wish they would disappear. There has been plenty of critique of them over the past couple of decades and much advice (including from me) about handling them with great care. I’ve also tried mocking the league tables; indeed I’ve indulged in this at arguably excessive length to precisely nil effect.

It is welcome therefore to see a set of detailed critiques of the rankings and the range of sharply presented academic perspectives offered in this collection of pieces looking not only at the rankings themselves but also about their place within the wider public discourse.

The rankings arms race

Many in universities will agree that the rankings are not value-neutral and some will endorse one of the core arguments which runs throughout the book that they promote a neo-liberal market-orientated logic which powerfully influences the operation of higher education in a competitive global marketplace. Indeed, it is suggested that the rankings represent a kind of arms race where some countries use the rankings as signals for investment in HE systems. Citing Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999) it is further proposed that this is “a manifestation of US-based cultural imperialism” but also noted that the three most influential global rankings are all based outside the US. Further in this vein it is rightly observed that the rankings hold up an “Anglo-Saxon model of the elite research institution as the ideal to follow” and are geared around measuring against this, not least in terms of the prioritisation of English language journals and in the focus on sciences at the expense of the arts and social sciences.

It is also argued that some countries have been persuaded to chase the creation of “world class universities” in order to achieve in the rankings but it is hard really to pin such a responsibility on the rankers for what sounds like simplistic instrumentalism on the part of governments. The authors also suggest that governments use rankings as pretexts for higher education reform; that may be true but governments are regularly reforming their education systems – rankings are not necessarily the only or even a significant reason for change.

Building on this it is further stated that:

“..the hegemony of the rankings paradigm derives primarily from its incorporation into the dominant discourses within each society, through its adoption by government and university policymakers, the media, and the public at large”.

It feels to me that this somewhat overstates the significance of rankings over the past 20 years and also fails to recognise that implicit hierarchies of universities existed for many years before the creation of the rankings.

Breadth and depth

The whole issue of journal impact, covered in some detail here,  and the significant profit-generation for academic publishers is of course linked to rankings but not exclusively. These trends predate the rankings although are undoubtedly reinforced by them.

The book goes much further than this both in terms of depth and breadth, with chapters covering  the implications of rankings for the Global South as well as the approaches taken in Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America.

We also have some highly specific and focused studies including on the impact of rankings on academic culture in Taiwan, the “irrational rationality” of metrics based assessment of research and a very niche analysis of the contrast in Japan between its own traditional institutional hierarchies and the rankings and the impact of this on graduate employment.

Also provided is a deep sociological perspective on rankings as a “surveillance assemblage” together with a detailed study on the possible relationship between the international league tables and faculty and graduate students’ self-reported indicators of health and well-being.

The sections on regional and national impacts are among the most interesting although I would have to say I struggled to see how the changes in Peruvian HE introduced in 2013, where the government was trying to introduce changes which included revised quality assurance arrangements and a new sector oversight agency, could solely be blamed on rankings. And furthermore, as is indicated in the text, a number of Latin American governments were able to “resist” the rankings by introducing a set of progressive reforms around expanding access and affirmative action.

How powerful are the rankings?

The general thrust of the argument in the book, which attributes a strong linkage to wider societal and market changes somewhat overstates the impact of the rankings however as does the proposition that the neo-liberal logic of the rankings has eroded “the Nordic commitment to social equality” and the “demise of “education for all” in France and the “state-building” universities in Latin America”. Rankings have accelerated these trends it is claimed and

“the nexus between university rankings, higher education governance, the organisation of academic work, and modes of knowledge generation cannot be fully appreciated without accounting for the ways in which university rankings complicate the contested aims of higher education”.

I really think there is too much attribution of power to the rankers here. Policymakers may draw on them but if they do then they really are not very good policymakers. The unequal impact of an Anglo-Saxon model undoubtedly disadvantages the Global South in particular but seeing rankings as just a subset of wider economic global competition is again to overstate their importance and weight.

Here to stay?

The authors conclude by asking “must rankings be here to stay?” The answer is yes and no. There will probably always be rankings, either implicit or explicit, but the key thing is to value other aspects of higher education at least equally if not more. The rankings do stifle alternative voices, as they are only interested in different perspectives in so far as they serve the core purpose of making rankings more attractive to readers, funders, advertisers and policy makers.

But the authors here are also arguing for a different model of HE altogether: one “grounded in educational, democratic, and participatory principles” which include students and those who work, support or depend on institutions. “This requires students, faculty, staff, and diverse publics to consider these institutions as theirs and to demand they be governed as such.”

It’s a radical manifesto but I’m not sure how it will actually stop the rankings which, as noted earlier, remain very much a part of the higher education landscape, albeit a largely unloved (at best) aspect. They are big business and they retain significant influence as this book clearly indicates. The fundamental problem we are left with though is this kind of detailed critique is not enough. Ruthless academic dissection of the rankings, no matter how well executed, is not in itself sufficient to reverse the rankings tide.

The book represents a powerful set of arguments about the many and varied failings of the global rankings. Whilst it is hard to argue with much of the criticism I fear it will not cause too many sleepless nights for the rankers.