Rankings and Mediatization of University
While rankings and various kinds of assessments of universities or professional schools within certain fields have been around for quite some time, it was not until the beginning of the twenty-first century and the publishing of the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities (in 2003) and the Times Higher Education World University Ranking (in 2004) that rankings became global in the sense that they aimed to compare university performance around the world. These major initiatives were soon followed by many others, both private and public, with varying ambitions and scope. Within a short span of time, there was an increase in rankings at all levels: global, regional (such as the European Union), and national. By offering purportedly objective comparisons between the qualities of different higher education institutions worldwide, rankings have had a major impact on the reshaping of the higher education landscape. They have also been integral to the transformations of what is now commonly perceived to be a global university sector or market (Drori et al. 2012). Consequently, university rankings are often viewed and theorized as symptoms or results of meta-processes such as globalization and commercialization. Global rankings seem inevitable in a globalized world, where knowledge is perceived as a vital commodity for individuals as well as nations in the global competition for jobs, innovation, and economic growth.
The surge in the use and impact of rankings fits well as an example of globalization and global governance models for higher education, but there is also research suggesting that they are prime examples of how mediatization shapes the institutional context of science, scholarship, and higher education. Accordingly, the emergence and proliferation of rankings can be seen, at least in part, as a result of the development of certain kinds of media products but also as typical products of a “media logic,” that is, the institutional and technological modus operandi of the media, including the ways in which media create and distribute material and symbolic resources. Even though there is no one authoritative definition of the concept, mediatization usually refers to a process where the media influence and intervene on the activity of other institutions, such as universities.
The term mediatization describes a process of social change in which media exert greater and greater influence and become ever more deeply integrated into different spheres of society (Asp 1986; Strömbäck 2008). In recent years, many scholars both within media studies and political sciences have found the concept of mediatization useful in thinking about, describing and analyzing how the mass media act as agents of change for other institutions (Schillemans 2012). Like other multifaceted and complex meta-processes such as globalization, however, mediatization is not easily delimited or defined. It designates not so much a coherent theory as a theoretical perspective or frame of reference (Strömbäck and Esser 2014). There is, nonetheless, a broad consensus that mediatization can be defined, in the most general terms, as the rise and intensification of the influence of the media on the functioning of different sectors of society (Lundby 2009). What the concept of mediatization tries to capture is the multidimensional and intricate long-term correlation between media change and cultural change (Hepp et al. 2010). In other words, the concept of mediatization is used to describe a process of transformation, wherein the original logics of a field, institution, or organization give way to the specific logics of the media. Thus, through the process of mediatization, academic institutions and organizations become increasingly dependent on the media and, as a consequence, are increasingly guided by media logic. One example of this is that scientists, research groups, universities, and other academic institutions have to prioritize and allocate more resources to their media activities. In a “media society” or a “mediatized society,” the growing importance of the media in shaping public opinion, awareness, and perception has a considerable impact on the way institutions of research and higher education are understood, evaluated, and managed. Mediatization theory, however, studies not only how information about research and higher education is transmitted through media but also how media are integrated in the fundamental work of academic institutions. By way of its specific “logic,” the media create a dramaturgy building on simplification, polarization, intensification, personalization, visualization, and stereotypization (Asp 1986) – a dramaturgy that fits ill with the traditional academic precepts and values (cf. Rider et al., 2013). By publicizing central issues related to higher education in certain specific ways, such as the framing and presentation of policy debates, for example, the media not only inform but even shape the public understanding of the activities, practices, and results of research and higher education. Politicians and management, as well as the institutions and organizations involved, must then adapt to the public image thus created, through changes in policies, regulations, and funding (Pallas and Wedlin 2013). Thus, through the process of mediatization, the media attain autonomy with respect to the institutions they mediate. “Mediatization,” then, designates this adaption of different social fields or systems, such as those of higher education and research, to these autonomous institutionalized rules for how media mediates. These rules, that is, institutionalized formats and forms of staging, are what the concept of “media logic” is all about (Altheide and Snow 1979).
Mediatization scholarship examines how, and the extent to which media communication is integrated in policy processes, organizational structures are modified and designed to accommodate this communication, and the execution of core tasks are imbued with media logic, as well as conceivable or likely outcomes of such accommodation and adaptation (cf. Fredriksson et al. 2015; Schillemans 2012). According to some scholars, the increasing power and autonomy of the media implies an increasing dependency in the institutions mediated, such as universities. The heightened autonomy of the first is won at the loss of autonomy of the second.
The concept of mediatization is most often used to analyze the relationship between politics and media. As we have seen, however, the concept is equally useful for understanding the relationship between higher education and media. Mediatization provides a framework for understanding why universities submit to the rankings, for instance, and why the latter have become so useful for policymakers and decision-makers on different levels in the global higher education sector.
Rankings as Example of the Mediatization of Universities
A common feature of university rankings, be they national, regional or global, is that they aim to grade higher education institutions according to various indicators or metrics. There has been much debate about the merits of ranking methodology and whether they measure what they purport to measure. Research has suggested a number of problems with university rankings. One problem is that reputation, included as an indicator at least to some extent in most rankings, is of questionable validity. Further, rankings change their criteria and methodologies, making it difficult to make comparisons over time. A third issue has to do with the negative impacts of rankings: they assume a zero-sum game, since there can only be a certain number of top universities in a league table. That assumption in itself at the very outset characterizes the overwhelming majority of the world’s institutions of higher education as “non-excellent.”
Rankings have also been criticized for privileging established centers of research and higher learning in the industrialized West, by virtue of their heritage, wealth, and strong traditions of academic freedom and meritocracy (Altbach 2012). Another example of such privileging bias is the universal pressure to publish in English and on issues deemed worthy of publication in Western journals (Kang 2009). In order to become “world class,” according to the rankings, non-English-speaking countries must encourage publishing in predominately Anglophone journals. There has been considerable discussion of the deleterious consequences of this development; aside from domain loss within other languages, there is a risk that problems and issues of local or regional concern will not be addressed by scholarship at all (Lin 2009). Finally, the rankings have been criticized for the relative lack of importance attached to teaching. By focusing almost exclusively on research outputs in leading journals, rankings tend to favor institutions heavy on disciplines that attract the most funding and produce the most publications and citations (i.e., the STEM subjects, medicine, and pharmacology), since these determine the position reached in the rankings (Altbach 2012).
The scholarly debates over the value and meaning of the rankings have not stopped them from acquiring public and political popularity as a way to measure and compare the performance of entire universities across diverse social, political, economic, and cultural contexts. One explanation for the popularity of rankings that has been suggested is the impact of the extensive media coverage of them. The results of the comparisons and the assessments of higher education institutions are almost always newsworthy, while many of the rankings themselves are products created or sponsored by media outlets. In their publicizing of the rankings, the media constitute their meaning. They have taken the assessment of quality outside of the jurisdiction of the universities themselves and placed it “within a wider comparative and international framework overseen by governments and supranational organizations” (Hazelkorn 2015). By making supposedly “objective” comparisons between different universities, and by the effective dissemination of the results in and through media, rankings have become a “quasi-funding instrument,” fusing national and international priorities and transforming a benchmarking tool into a strategic instrument (Hazelkorn 2009) for university managements as well as governments eager to increase national competitiveness in the global race for knowledge capital. As higher education becomes increasingly central to strategies for enhancing competitive advantage in what is called “the global knowledge economy,” it also becomes more adapted to its role as an instrument of economic development. Higher education and research are thus redirected toward wealth creation and economic competitiveness at the expense of other tasks. It is in this process and under these conditions that “knowledge becomes commodity” (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). Mediatization scholars would say that in a mediatized world, the media plays an essential part in the production, marketing, and distribution of this commodity on all levels.
Consequences of Mediatization for Public Education
Whether or not rankings really measure what they purport to measure is an important issue for the methodologies and quality of different rankings. Mediatization studies, however, are more concerned with the effects rankings might have on the inner workings of higher education institutions. One way to do this is to think about what rankings might mean for the relationships between institutions of research and higher education and their societal environments.
The modern media society is characterized by an abundance of information and a scarcity of attention (Asp 1986). Hence, institutions and organizations, both public and private, are involved in a constant struggle to get people’s attention. Since rankings are, by way of the media dramaturgy, newsworthy, they direct attention to higher education and research as important sectors in society. But rankings do more than that: they also translate the internal moral and professional norms, values, and qualities in accordance with the media logic. The media formulate the internal qualities of research and higher education in ways that make them suited for public communication (Pallas and Wedlin 2013). In this way, the media not only publicize higher education and research but also make them “public” in more profound ways. From the internal perspective of research and higher education, this translation of the internal qualities according to media logic can have unintended and undesirable consequences. Since the media need to emphasize and elaborate specific aspects of organizations or events in order to make them comprehensible and relevant for a broader audience, the mediation of research tends toward oversimplification. This, in turn, in the public mind, is liable to sever the relation between universities, on the one hand, and traditional and established academic norms and values, on the other. In mediating popularized and simplified images of the very complex and diversified activities and operations at higher education institutions, the media produce images of what good research and higher education are or should be that render invisible what, from the point of view of university teaching, science and scholarship, are fundamental. The popularized and simplified images can only convey a very limited conception of what research and higher education is, what it does, and the possible ways it could contribute to the surrounding society since it is impossible to mediate the complexity and diversity that actually exist at the tens of thousands of departments, research units, colleges, and universities throughout the world. Rankings, the prime example of this popularization and simplification, inevitably promote a conception of research and education that directs attention to certain disciplines and activities while largely ignoring others. The phenomenon of mediatization, here exemplified by rankings, makes universities dependent on the media for their recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere. In order to attract students and attract funding, for example, the universities must accommodate the expectations placed on them as a consequence of the public, which is mediated, version of what a university fundamentally is.
In contrast with the complex reality that they take themselves to be explaining, rankings are very simple and straightforward: they seem to provide an objective comparison and evaluation with respect to a limited number of discrete variables or indicators, across a broad range of diverse cultural, social, economic, and political contexts. The simplicity is itself a consequence of media logic, the aim of which is to produce a coherent and easily grasped image. Thus, “excellence” in teaching or research is whatever the rankings, that is, the framework for the mediation of universities, say it is. From the perspective of mediatization theory, the rankings can be said to produce “excellence” through their effects on regional and national policy, university management, and even the choices of the individual. The image produced in the rankings, disseminated through media and consumed by the public, become the basis for decision-making at all levels. The subsequent reorganizing of higher education institutions constitutes a shift from a traditional academic organization with collegial autonomy and control over curricula and research toward an organization in which every section is assessed in relation to the university’s ability to climb, that is, to appear more “excellent,” in the rankings. This devotion of attention and resources to branding weakens traditional academic structures, values, and concepts, which are usurped by the principles and practices of corporate management.
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