Skip to main content

The Berlin Principles on Ranking Higher Education Institutions: limitations, legitimacy, and value conflict

Abstract

University rankings have been widely criticized and examined in terms of the environment they create for universities. In this paper, I reverse the question by examining how ranking organizations have responded to criticisms. I contrast ranking values and evaluation with those practiced by academic communities. I argue that the business of ranking higher education institutions is not one that lends itself to isomorphism with scholarly values and evaluation and that this dissonance creates reputational risk for ranking organizations. I argue that such risk caused global ranking organizations to create the Berlin Principles on Ranking Higher Education Institutions, which I also demonstrate are decoupled from actual ranking practices. I argue that the Berlin Principles can be best regarded as a legitimizing practice to institutionalize rankings and symbolically align them with academic values and systems of evaluation in the face of criticism. Finally, I argue that despite dissonance between ranking and academic evaluation, there is still enough similarity that choosing to adopt rankings as a strategy to distinguish one’s institution can be regarded as a legitimate option for universities.

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

References

  1. Amsler, S. S., & Bolsmann, C. (2012). University ranking as social exclusion. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33(2), 283–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Barker, D. (2008). Ethics and lobbying: The case of real estate brokerage. Journal of Business Ethics, 80(1), 23–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Baty, P. (2014). The times higher education world university rankings, 2004–2012. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 13(2), 125–130.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bourdieu, P. (1980). The logic of practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 2, 147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Du Gay, P., & Pryke, M. (2002). Cultural economy: Cultural analysis and commercial life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Espeland, W. N., & Stevens, M. L. (1998). Commensuration as a social process. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 313–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Gladwell, M. (2011). The order of things. The New Yorker, February 14. Retrieved January 16, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_gladwell.

  10. Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-Class Excellence. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  11. International Ranking Expert Group. (2014). Berlin Principles on Ranking. Retrieved January 29, 2014, http://www.ireg-observatory.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=41&Itemid=48.

  12. International Ranking Expert Group. (2015). IREG Approved. Retrieved March 24, 2015, http://www.ireg-observatory.org/en/index.php/information.

  13. Lamont, M. (2010). How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Lamont, M. (2012). Toward a comparative sociology of valuation and evaluation. Annual Review of Sociology, 38(1), 201–221.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Law, J., & Hassard, J. (Eds.). (1999). Actor network theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Liu, N. C., & Cheng, Y. (2005). The academic ranking of world universities. Higher Education in Europe, 30(2), 127–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Lynch, M. (1993). Scientific practice and ordinary action: Ethnomethodology and social studies of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Marginson, S. (2007). Global university rankings: Implications in general and for Australia. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 29(2), 131–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Marope, M. P. T., Wells, P. J., & Hazelkorn, E. (2013). Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses. United Nations EducationalScientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved December 19, 2014, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/resources/in-focus-articles/rankings/.

  21. Nigavekar, A. (2012, April 3). Obsession with university rankings. Financial Chronicle. Retrieved on January 16, 2014 from Factiva.

  22. Orton, J. D., & Weick, K. E. (1990). Loosely coupled systems: A reconceptualization. The Academy of Management Review, 15(2), 203–223.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Porter, T. M. (1995). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Power, M. K. (2003). Auditing and the production of legitimacy. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 28(4), 379–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Power, M., Scheytt, T., Soin, K., & Sahlin, K. (2009). Reputational risk as a logic of organizing in late modernity. Organization Studies, 30(2–3), 301–324.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Quacquarelli Symonds. (2013). World University Rankings | Top Universities. Retrieved October 13, 2013. http://www.topuniversities.com/qs-world-university-rankings.

  27. Quacuarelli Symonds. (2014). QS university rankings: BRICS 2014 | Top Universities. Retrieved December 2, 2014. http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/brics-rankings/2014#sorting=rank+country=+stars=false+search=.

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sayer, A. (2000). Realism and Social Science. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  30. Sayer, D. (2016). Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF. London, UK: SAGE Publications. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/rank-hypocrisies/book244105.

  31. Smelser, N. J. (2013). Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion, and Conflict. University of California Press. Retrieved June 14, 2015, http://california.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1525/california/9780520275812.001.0001/upso-9780520275812.

  32. Smith, D. E. (2006). Institutional ethnography as practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Stake, J. (2015). Play The Ranking Game: The Law School Ranking Game Page: Indiana Law. Retrieved March 28, 2015, http://monoborg.law.indiana.edu/LawRank/play.shtml.

  34. Stark, D. (2009). The sense of dissonance. [electronic Resource]: Accounts of worth in economic life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Strathern, M. (1997). ‘Improving ratings’: Audit in the British University system. European Review, 5(3), 305–321.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Times Higher Education. (2014). World university rankings—Home—Times Higher Education. Retrieved December 16, 2014, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/.

  37. Timmermans, S. & Epstein, S. (2010). A world of standards but not a standard world: Toward a sociology of standards and standardization*. Annual Review of Sociology, 36(1), 69–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. U-Multirank. (2014). U-Multirank. Retrieved October 5, 2013. http://umultirank.org/.

  39. US News. (2014). Top Arab Region Universities | US News Best Arab Region Universities—US News. US News & World Report. Retrieved December 16, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/education/arab-region-universities.

  40. Usher, A. (2014). The problem with global reputation rankings|HESA. Retrieved October 9, 2014, http://higheredstrategy.com/the-problem-with-global-reputation-rankings/.

  41. Walker, S. (2004, December 1). Diversity not being considered. The Australian, No. 42. Retrieved on January 16, 2014 from Factiva.

  42. West, P. W. A. (2009). A Faustian bargain? institutional responses to national and international rankings. Higher Education Management and Policy, 21(1), 9–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gary R. S. Barron.

Ethics declarations

Ethical standard

The research upon which this paper is based was approved by a University Research Ethics Board.

Informed consent

All participants were provided with informed consent.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Barron, G.R.S. The Berlin Principles on Ranking Higher Education Institutions: limitations, legitimacy, and value conflict. High Educ 73, 317–333 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0022-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • University rankings
  • Performance measurement
  • Ranking ethics
  • Values
  • Evaluation
  • University governance
  • Cultural economy