Working Paper 19
Rankings and higher education: reframing relationships within and between states
Published May 2017

Global university rankings are playing an increasing role in shaping higher education’s purpose, argues Professor Ellen Hazelkorn from Dublin Institute of Technology in a paper written for the 2017 Burton R Clark annual lecture on higher education.

In the paper, she argues that despite ongoing criticism of university rankings, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the methodology, they are now widely perceived and used as the international measure of quality. Surveys that she conducted in 2006 and again in 2014 show that universities are using rankings to inform strategic decisions and shape priorities. Being in the ‘top 100’ is widely formulated as a national or institutional strategy.

Professor Hazelkorn contends that the dominance of rankings has arisen as a result of the changing relationship between higher education and the state. She identifies this change as resulting from: 1) growing calls for accountability, and 2) the increasingly geopolitical responsibilities of universities.

She highlights the fact that in recent years there has been growing pressure on universities to justify the public interests they serve. As a result, quality has become a contested concept, transformed from being institutionally led to driven and regulated by the state. Globalisation and the massification of higher education have also led to a growing demand for internationally comparative data. University priorities are being set by governments through national strategies or performance agreements. Whereas historically the state provided for the needs of universities, today the university provides for the needs of the state.

She argues that the popularity of rankings also reflects higher education’s central position in geopolitical relations. As nations compete based on their knowledge and innovation systems, higher education has become an important part of the global economic architecture. Universities face competing demands from local, national and global actors.

As a consequence, the pursuit of ‘world-class’ status has become a shared strategy of transnationalising elites. Professor Hazelkorn warns that one of the dangers of global rankings is that many universities have become civically disengaged. By measuring the achievements of individual universities rather than the system or society collectively, global rankings promote world-class universities rather than world-class systems. Professor Hazelkorn concludes that universities must urgently rethink and reshape relations with their publics and the state, and work towards bridging the gap between local, national and global.