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Take Care When Using Rankings for Policymaking and Institutional Decision-making?


How should you determine the best universities?

Are the best universities those which help the majority of students earn credentials for sustainable living and employment OR those that best match the criteria established by the different rankings?

Are the best universities those that “emphasize the obligations students have to serve their communities and the nation at large” OR those that adopt indicators chosen by commercial organisations for their own purposes?

What are rankings and how have they changed over the years?

Global rankings are the inevitable product of an internationalised higher education market and world economy although their origins stretch back to the early 19th century. Since 2003, they have become a phenomenon in every world region, and in almost every country. Their rise to prominence coincided with the current phase of globalisation and growing dissatisfaction with the robustness of traditional collegial mechanisms of quality assurance. Hence, regardless of our views about their merits or otherwise, rankings matter.

Rankings have acquired legitimacy because their methodology appears statistically rigorous and independent. They also appear to be the only way to compare performance and quality internationally. This is important because higher education plays a key role as the engine of the knowledge-economy. Thus, the quality and status of our universities/colleges and university-based research has become an essential and vital indicator of competitiveness and key differentiator – regionally, nationally and internationally.

Rankings appear to provide a simple and useful way to measure and compare quality and performance. Because of their influence on students, stakeholders, governments, etc. rankings are used by governments and higher education institutions (HEI). Being included in the rankings, almost regardless of the actual position, can send out a powerful message about an institution’s reputation and status.

But, rankings encourage prestige-seeking by becoming more selective: focusing on high-achievers who bring in revenue and aid performance indicators; limiting class/cohort size; shifting from needs-based to merit scholarships; focusing on research rather than teaching; and on postgraduate rather than undergraduate students. As this happens, there is growing evidence of increasing stratification within higher education systems, and “who gets what”. 

How do governments use rankings – and to what effect?

Around the world, governments and educational institutions are undergoing significant change and reform as a response to:

  • The strategic infrastructural role that higher education plays in knowledge-intensive societies;
  • Broader demographic and labour market changes driving massification and changes in the student cohort, diversification of providers and differentiation of missions;
  • Recognition that democratic societies and economies require a higher education system able to meet its needs and that of its citizens, now and into the future.

There is however mounting evidence that some changes are being introduced to correspond directly with rankings. This is because quality has become a geopolitical issue. Rankings can operate as a beacon to attract and retain mobile capital and business, at a time of demographic changes and heightened competition for talent globally. They are interpreted as a link between a credential and career opportunity, salary and life-style. For the public, rankings can indicate value-for-money and return-on-(public) investment, and convey a sense pride.

Excellence initiatives – named after the German Exzellenzinitiative (Initiative for Excellence) introduced in 2005 – now operate in over 30 different countries, including Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Singapore, and Taiwan (Salmi, 2016). They work primarily on the philosophy of picking winners, and giving them additional resources – in the belief that the benefits of exclusivity will spill-over to the rest of society.

However, rankings are essentially a driver of inequality. They measure resource-intensity or inputs, and reward sustained concentration and selectivity in a few elite universities – rather than student or societal achievement or outcomes. The effect is to:

  • Amplify the benefits and prestige of elite universities and their graduates;
  • Undermine teaching mission and service to society;
  • Realign research towards the biosciences and medicine;
  • Intensify steeper hierarchies and social stratification.

As some governments link performance against rankings, universities have shifted their priorities.

Do rankings help or harm the development of higher education institutions?

Rankings have become a dominant strategic driver of university decision-making. They have succeeded in focusing attention on quality, and positioning higher education within an international comparative and competitive setting. There is increasing evidence that rankings are also used to:

  • Set explicit strategic goals which may vary with mission;
  • Identify key performance indicators (KPI) to measure performance and reward success;
  • Inform academic recruitment and promotion, and identify under-performers;
  • Identify potential partners or membership of international networks;

According to a survey by i-graduate (in Hazelkorn, 2016, 150), 80% undergraduate and postgraduate (taught and research) students have a high interest in rankings. This is particularly true for high achieving and high socio-economic students (SES) who are more likely to be make choices based on non-financial factors, e.g. reputation and rankings. International students continue to rate reputation and position in rankings as key determinants in their choice of institution, programme and country. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between rankings, perceptions of quality, institutional reputation and choice of destination. In addition to students and their parents, businesses and investors, policymakers and other decision-makers, as well as the public, are influenced by rankings.

Performing well in the rankings are perceived as attracting benefit and prestige to universities. Given this significance, many university leaders have been heard to say: “I’ll do whatever it takes to be in/get into the top-rankings”. 

However, the financial costs linked to pursuing a rankings-led strategy are very high. In addition to the initial costs associated with investment in research and recruitment of international “stars”, there are significant on-going costs. To meet the criteria requires most universities to abandon or re-focus their mission, priorities and resource allocation, and to prioritise global over national or regional commitments.

How should you decide higher education policy?

To move towards a mass knowledge society (where progress depends on the “wisdom of the many”) or towards an elite knowledge society (where progress depends on the cutting-edge knowledge of the chosen few)?

To improve the capacity and quality of the whole system – or reward the achievements of elite flagship institutions? 

To what extent do rankings influence the social responsibility of higher education?

The ACU Strategic Plan, 2016-2021 sets out five priorities – number one of which is to “champion the value of higher education for global challenges and positive social change”[i]. In so doing, the strategy acknowledges the crucial role HEIs play as anchor institutions within their communities – their regions and nations. The relationship between HEIs and the nation state is changing everywhere, but an increasingly important issue to the extent to which higher education has the capacity and capability to meet a wide range of national objectives arising from economic competitiveness and sustainability, changing labour markets and patterns of employment and lifestyle, and societal and cultural necessities and opportunities.

Projections suggest the number of students enrolled in higher education will rise from 99.4 million in 2000 to 414.2 million in 2030—an increase of 314%. Accommodating the additional students will require more than four major universities (30,000 students) to open every week for the next fifteen years (Calderon, 2012). But, the top-100 universities represent less than 0.5% of the almost 18,000 HEIs worldwide, and approximately 0.4% of total tertiary students. Focusing on these universities provides a perverse view of the national system.

While society is looking for higher education to meet a wider range of social, cultural and economic needs, rankings measure contrary objectives. Prestige and reputation become dominant drivers rather than student achievement, contribution to society and the economy, or equity and diversity. This occurs because arts, humanities and social science research, publishing in the national language or journals, contributing to knowledge exchange, working with small-and medium sized enterprises (SME), encouraging innovation, etc. are neither measured nor valued by rankings. Furthermore, concentrating excellence in a small number of elite institutions may, unwittingly, undermine “high-quality research being made by a wider set of higher education institutions…which are doing particularly good work in niche areas (Chapman et al., 2014, 13).

The tension between local, regional, national and international missions is most pronounced in the world-class university model. This is defined according to the characteristics of the top-100 ranked universities, and has become a government and university objective in many countries – as discussed above.

In contrast, the world-class system model emphasizes the importance of a multiplicity of HEIs, each with distinctive missions, which complement each other to maximise capacity beyond individual capability (Hazelkorn, 2016, chapter 6).

Rather than using rankings, governments and HEIs should focus on benchmarking – such as that promoted by ACU. This uses a sophisticated combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to embrace and embed the full spectrum of teaching/learning, research/discovery and innovation/engagement. These are precisely the attributes that promote active civic engagement, enhancing the competitive advantage of cities, regions and/or nation-states as well as underpinning societal democratic values and active citizenship (Hazelkorn in Goddard et al, 2016, 54).


Calderon, A. (2012) “Higher Education in 2035 – the ongoing massification”.

Chapman, D. W., C.-L Chien, P. Haddawy, G. Halevi, S. Hassan, I.B.Lee, H.F. Moed, P. Montjourides, M. Schaaper, S. Sigdel and N.V. Vafghese (2014) Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up. The rise of graduate education and university research, Montreal, UNESCO Institute of Statistics.

Goddard, J., E. Hazelkorn, L. Kempton and P. Vallance (eds) (2016) The Civic University: the policy and leadership challenges. Edward Elgar, UK.

Hazelkorn, E. (2015) Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World Class Excellence, Palgrave Macmillan, UK. 2nd Edition

Published: Bulletin, Association of Commonwealth Universities, London, 2017. 

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