Research discourses surrounding global university rankings: exploring the relationship with policy and practice recommendations

Abstract

This study examines the ways in which different research perspectives have tended to problematize global university rankings (GURs). An analytical framework is applied to help articulate four distinct research discourses that have been applied to GURs. The framework distinguishes research problems which are locally defined and ‘emergent’ from those which are ‘a priori’ and seek to test data against established bodies of knowledge. The analysis in this paper considers the contribution made from studies framed by these contrasting perspectives. The paper considers the extent to which different research approaches align with or challenge the dominant discourses within higher education internationally. The analysis shows how the research perspective adopted relates to the nature of policy and practice responses proposed; both in terms of the audience(s) they are addressed to; and the extent to which policy and practice solutions are structural and systemic or social practice oriented. The paper highlights some of the implications of the prevailing research orientation for the trajectory of GUR development.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    The ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ launched in 2003 and the Times Higher Education Supplement’s ‘World University Rankings’ launched in 2004.

  2. 2.

    These include the UNESCO backed ‘International rankings expert group’; the OECD ‘Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes' project; and the EU funded ‘U-Multirank’ project.

  3. 3.

    Academic search complete, JSTROR, web of science on web of knowledge.

  4. 4.

    But, rather, some specialist professional ranking or ranking method applied to different subject matter.

  5. 5.

    The majority being in the Times Higher Education Supplement, but also other press including the Washington Post, the Telegraph and the Guardian.

References

  1. Ackers, L. (2008). Internationalisation, mobility and metrics: A new form of domination. Minerva, 46(4), 411–435.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Adler, N., & Harzing, A. (2009). When knowledge wins: Transcening the sense of nonsense of academic rankings. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 8(1), 72–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Aguillo, I., Ilan, J., Levene, M., & Ortega, J. (2010). Comparing university rankings. Scientometrics, 85, 243–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Altbach, P. (2006). The dilemmas of ranking. International Higher Education, 42, 2–3.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Billaut, J. C., Bouyssou, D., & Vincke, P. (2010). Should you believe the Shanghai ranking? Scientometrics, 84(1), 237–263.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bowman, N. A., & Bastedo, M. N. (2011). Anchoring effects in world university rankings: Exploring biases in reputation scores. Higher Education, 61(4), 431–444.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis. Burlington, USA: Ashgate.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Coates, H. (2007). Universities on the catwalk: Models of performance for ranking in Australia. Higher Education Management and Policy, 19(2), 69–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Cuthbert, R. (2011). Failing the challenge of institutional evaluation: How and why managerialism flourishes. In M. Saunders, P. Trowler, & V. Bamber (Eds.), Reconceptualising evaluation in higher education: The practice turn. SRHE and Open University Press.

  10. Deetz, S. (1996). Describing difference in approaches to organisation science: Rethinking Burrell and Morgan and their legacy. Organization Science, 7(2), 191–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dill, D., & Soo, M. (2005). Academic quality, league tables, and public policy: A cross-national analysis of university rankings. Higher Education, 49, 495–533.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Docampo, D. (2008). International rankings and the quality of university systems. Revista De Educacion (Special issue), 149–170.

  13. Grant, M. (2011). International world rankings: Where do you stand? Retrieved Sep 13, 2011, from British Council Going Global 5 conference proceedings: http://www.britishcouncil.org/goingglobal-GG5-rankings.htm.

  14. Halffman, W., & Leydesdorff, L. (2010). Is inequality among universities increasing? Gini coefficients and the elusive rise of the Elite Universities. Minerva: A review of science, learning and policy, 48(1), 55–72.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hazelkorn, E. (2007). Impact and influence of league tables and ranking systems on higher education decision making. Higher Education Management and Policy, 19(2), 87–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hazelkorn, E. (2009). Rankings and the battle for world class excellence: Institutional strategies and policy choices. Higher Education Management and Policy, 21(1), 55–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Rankings and the reshaping of higher education. The battle for world class excellence. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Hughes, R. (2010, March). World rankings of universities and collaborative teaching provision. Retrieved July 15, 2011, from British Council—Going Global 4 International Education conference—Proceedings: http://www.britishcouncil.org/going_global_4_-_league_tables_-_prof_hughes_-_pp.pdf.

  19. Ioannidis, J., Patsopoulos, N., & Kavvoura, F. K. (2007). International ranking systems for universities and institutions: A critical appraisal. BMC Medicine, 5, 30–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Ishikawa, M. (2009). University rankings, global models and emerging hegemony. International Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(2), 159–173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Li, M., Shankar, S., & Ki Tang, K. (2011). Catching up with Harvard: Results from regression analysis of world university league tables. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(2), 121–137.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Lo, W. Y. (2011). Soft power, university rankings and knowledge production: Distinctions between hegemony and self determination in higher education. Comparative Education, 47(2), 209–222.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Locke, W. V. (2008). Counting what is measured or measuring what counts? League tables and their impact on HE institutions in England. Retrieved from Higher Education Funding Council for England: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2008/08_14/08_14.pdf.

  24. Locke, W. (2011). The Institutionalisation of Rankings: Managing status anxiety in an increasingly marketised environment. In J. Shin, R. Toutkoushian, & U. Teichler (Eds.), University Rankings. Theoretical basis, methodology and impacts in Higher Education.

  25. Marginson, S. (2009). Open source knowledge and university rankings. Thesis Eleven, 96, 9–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Marginson, S. (2012). Global University rankings: The strategic issues. Las Universidades Latinoamericas ante los rankings internacionales: Impactos, Alcances y limites. http://www.encuentro-rankings.unam.mx/Documentos/ConferenciaMagistralMarginsontexto.pdf.

  27. Marginson, S., & Van der Wende, M. (2007). To rank or to be ranked: The impact of global rankings in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3–4), 306–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Martins, L. (2005). A model of the effects of reputational rankings on organizational change. Organization Science, 16(6), 701–720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Meredith, M. (2004). Why do universities compete in the ratings game? An empirical analysis of the effects of the US News and World Report College Rankings. Research in Higher Education, 45, 443–461.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Moloney, J. (2011). International World rankings: Where do you stand. Retrieved Sep 13, 2011, from British Council—going global 5 conference proceedings: http://www.britishcouncil.org/goingglobal-gg5-rankings.htm.

  31. Monks, J. A., & Ehrenberg, R. G. (1999). The impact of the US News and World Report college rankings on admission outcomes and pricing policiies at selective private institutions. Cambridge MA: NBER Working Paper No. 7227, National Bureau of Economic Research.

  32. Morgan, J. (2010). Global elite looks set to be dethroned by young rebels. Times Higher Education Supplement. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=413764.

  33. Nolle, L. (2010). Cluster based benchmarking as an alternative to league tables. Research and Development in Intelligent Systems, XXVI, 499–504.

    Google Scholar 

  34. O’Connell, C., & Saunders, M. (2012). Mediating the use of global university rankings: Perspectives from education facilitators in an international context. Journal of Studies in International Education, (16). doi:10.1177/1028315312453743.

  35. OECD. (2010). Education at a glance 2010. Retrieved Jan 20, 2011, from http://www.oecd.org/document/52/0,3746,en_2649_39263238_45897844_1_1_1_1,00.html.

  36. Pascarella, E. (2001). Identifying excellence in undergraduate education: Are we even close. Change, 33(3), 18–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Paulston, R. (1992). Ways of seeing education and social change in Latin America: A phenomenographic perspective. Latin American Research Review, 27(3), 177–202.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Pike, G. (2004). Measuring quality: A comparison of US news rankings and NSSE benchmarks. Research in Higher Education, 45(2), 193–208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Saisana, M. (2011). Rickety numbers: Volatility of university rankings and policy implications. Research Policy, 40(1), 165–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Salmi, J., & Saroyan, A. (2007). League tables as policy instruments: Uses and misuses. Higher Education Management and Policy, 19(2), 31–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Sauder, M., & Espeland, W. (2009). The discipline of rankings: Tight coupling and organisational change. American Sociological Review, 74(1), 63–82.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Taylor, P., & Braddock, R. (2007). International university rankings and the idea of university excellence. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 29(3), 245–260.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Usher, A., & Savino, M. (2006). A world of difference: A global survey of university league tables. Canadian education report series. Toronto: Education Policy Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Wedlin, L. (2011). Going global: Rankings as rhetorical devices to construct an international field of management education. Management Learning, 42(2), 199–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Yonezawa, A. (2007). Japanese flagship universities at a crossroads. Higher Education, 54, 483–489.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Catherine O’Connell.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 1.

Table 1 Search criteria and outcomes of literature search

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

O’Connell, C. Research discourses surrounding global university rankings: exploring the relationship with policy and practice recommendations. High Educ 65, 709–723 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-012-9572-x

Download citation

Keywords

  • Global university rankings
  • Evaluation
  • Research frameworks
  • Policy and practice implications