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The Ranking Game: Who Wins, Who Loses?
International University Rankings  and the Race for World-Class Status
By Rachel Gellert

It seems that nowadays everything can be measured by rank. Our society craves to discover who or what is number one. In this competitive atmosphere success is only measured by being named the best with no regard to what it takes to get there. This system may work perfectly for finding the finest pizza in Manhattan, but is it really a productive way to compare top-tier international universities?

Jurgen Enders, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at University of Twente, says no. At a seminar called “International University Rankings and the Race for World-Class Status,” hosted by The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at NYU, Enders discussed how the rankings system creates a social order that has begun to affect the structure of higher education both nationally and internationally. An organized list clearly ordering the top universities significantly reduces complexity for prospective students, professors and employers. While desperately wanting to know which university is first, we forget that there is virtually no difference between rank number one and number two. In reality, says Enders, “there is barely any significant difference between number one and number ten.” However, this race for winning status creates a ‘quasi-market’ in which universities depend on a cycle of reputation, money, and self-fulfilling prophecies to stay competitive, sometimes at the cost of students’ best interests.

Enders reminds us that rankings only reflect the aspects of higher education we can accurately measure. This results in a widespread emphasis on things like reputation by peer appraisal, industry income, library size and the number of times faculty members are cited in scholarly journals. The Times Higher Education rankings use surveys of academic reputation to make up nearly 34.5 percent of their total. However, as Einstein said, quoted so accurately by D.D. Guttenplan of the New York Times in an article about university rankings: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Enders also discussed the great deal of bias that plays into the development of any ranking system, especially one that has been developed by the epistemic elite of a certain disciplinary. For instance, he explains how certain types of research are weighted more heavily than others and there is a great bias to the field of science. Since universities are ranked on a whole, international rankings systems tend to favor older, larger, and more comprehensive universities. While revealing the formula behind many top-ranking systems, Enders shows how it is impossible to have a top-tier international university without a well-established engineering and/or medical school. There is also a strong bias toward English, disadvantaging universities whose faculty members publish in other languages.

Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Science at New York University adds to the conversation by highlighting how the rankings system solidifies many class inequalities and limits the accessibility of higher education. Calhoun describes how financial aid is no longer given out on an entirely need-based system. Many universities spend incredible amounts of money competing for the small number of top students who have the high scores and grades to raise overall rankings. This leaves significantly less money for the other students who actually need tuition assistance. Calhoun makes Ender’s point abundantly clear: “As resources are devoted to this highly expensive race for world-class status, nation-specific goals for access, equity, and quality teaching may suffer.”

Robert H. Frank, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, agrees with Enders and Calhoun’s conclusions while going on to explain how in the academic marketplace, too much competition is really not a good thing. Frank explains how higher rankings mean more applications, a stronger alumni network and more money flowing into the university. But then, schools develop marketing departments that focus on branding their universities and creating a public image more than enhancing student life or lowering tuition.

The focus, Frank concludes, is no longer on being the best university, but rather on being ranked as the best university. It is an unfortunate game where there are lots of losers and very few winners. Universities begin to imitate the “top” universities in order to up their rankings, but Frank adds this merely results in standardization across the board, financial waste, and a neglect of the wider purposes of higher education.

It is comforting and secure to think that a numerical formula can accurately determine the best and most influential universities, but realistically this is not the case. However, when asked if society could ever truly turn away from the rankings system, Enders replies “most likely not.” Enders goes on to explain that society relies heavily on the simplicity that rankings supply. He acknowledges the competitive nature inherent between organizations and points out that while this global competition is perhaps unproductive, it gives the field a rarely critiqued sense of structure. Therefore, Enders advises that the best bet for improvement would not be to eliminate rankings, but rather to regulate and limit competition and make the rankings system more transparent.

Enders, Frank and Calhoun all agree that international university rankings need to switch their focus and use field-based, adoptive criteria to praise the multiple classes and dimensions of higher education. They conclude that the importance should be on creative teaching, innovative research and challenging opportunities that engage students. This is the only way to make universities more accessible and to enhance higher education across the globe. #



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