by GARRY CARNEGIE
Global university rankings (GUR) are being increasingly used to represent the performance of public universities. What has become all important is the ranking “awarded” so long as the direction of the movement is upwards. While this may not necessarily sound intuitive to at least some readers in the context of the world’s thinking institutions, this commentary provides instances of how a university’s aspirational ranking level, is driving behaviours in ways that have long-term ramifications for the higher education sector and the societies and communities our universities serve and develop.
Case scenarios are presented below, two drawn from Australia and two from the UK. Readers are encouraged to develop an interest in what is being stated by the leaders of our public universities in the domain of rankings. These illustrations can provide insight into the forces of change occurring towards increasing competition in the sector globally, and within universities, and help key stakeholders to appreciate where growing performance measurement and management intensity may be leading us.
The four-case scenarios comprise the University of Exeter (Exeter), Cardiff University (Cardiff), Macquarie University (Macquarie) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Many other universities around the globe are stating or undertaking the same or similar things in terms of privileging what is becoming known as the “sacred cow” status of the attributed rankings of universities.
Exeter discloses the following vision and mission statements respectively appear in the university’s 2019-2020 Annual Report:
“Our driving ambition [Vision] is to be a Global 100 research leader and create graduates of distinction, within a community of the most talented and creative minds.
“Our Mission is to make the exceptional happen by challenging traditional thinking and defying conventional boundaries. Our Strategy establishes how we will work towards achieving this, laying the foundations for our future success as a Global 100 research leader (p. 4).” (1)
Exeter does not specifically identify which of many GUR schemes is preferred.
Cardiff University’s web site provides the following information about its vision:
“Our vision is to be a world-leading, research-excellent, educationally outstanding university, driven by creativity and curiosity, which fulfils its social, cultural and economic obligations to Cardiff, Wales, the UK and the world. By fulfilling our vision we expect to improve our standing as one of the top 100 universities in the world and the top 20 in the UK.”(2)
The University’s mission statement is expressed as:
Cardiff University exists to create and share knowledge and to educate for the benefit of all (p. 10).(3)
For Exeter, the vision sets the aspiration for the university to be ranked as “a global 100 research leader”. Cardiff, however, expresses a formal vision, and adds reference to the intended consequence of essentially meeting this vision by being positioned in rankings as “one of the top 100 universities in the world” in at least one of various selections that can be made from various GUR. Importantly, none of the attributes identified in Exeter’s and Cardiff’s missions, would be adequately reflected in any GUR or any set of “key performance measures” (KPI) chosen and endorsed by ranking agencies.
Turning to other disclosures on GUR, the “Message from the Vice-Chancellor” appearing in the 2020 Annual Report of Macquarie U states:
“Macquarie achieved solid gains in two of the main world university rankings this year. We rose from 237 to 214 in the QS World University Rankings, and to 195 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings from the 201–250 band – our highest-ever position” (p. 5).(4)
In the 2019 Annual Report of Macquarie, however, there was the following specific reference to one of these two GUR as well as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or the “Shanghai Ranking”:
“In the 2019 ARWU Subject Rankings of World Universities, earth sciences, ecology, education, geography, psychology and telecommunication engineering entered the top 100 globally. Of note, this places education in the top 100 world rankings in all three major global rankings (ARWU, QS and THE) “(p. 41).(5)
In the 2020 ARWU, Education at Macquarie was reported in the 101-150 ranking.(6)
Our universities or at least some of their number may even be more apt at accountability for performance with what is regarded as apparently “good news” in the global ranking stakes.
The final case scenario relates to the to UNSW, which states in “The year under review” section of the University’s 2020 Annual Report:
“The UNSW Annual Report 2020 reflects the great depth of talent at our University. UNSW finished the year ranked 52nd in the Academic Ranking of Top Universities, our aggregate of the three leading global ranking schemes. While rankings are an imperfect measure of all we have accomplished, they are indicative of the truly world-class education and research for which UNSW is known (p. 6).”(7)
Rankings do not, with due respect, measure or portray, perfectively or imperfectly, all that has been accomplished by any public university. These devices are only indicative of what can be termed “measured performance”, which means reliance on selective and biased measures, known as KPIs or metrics, as chosen by the ranking agencies themselves. Indeed, “there is no such thing as an objective ranking” (Hazelton, 2019).(8)
Certain ranking schemes can be chosen as “preferred”; they all masquerade, however, as being objective, but the rankings handed out are narrowly determined, not objective and indeed confusing given the competition for ascendancy among the university ranking agencies. GUR drive “an often frenetic culture of continuous improvement in each institution” (Marginson, 2017) (9) and “stimulate competition between universities and make it difficult for them to co-operate” (Carnegie, CMM, September 16 2021).
They further stimulate internal competition among facilities, schools and individual academics at the same university. This regime pits institutional colleagues in higher education institutions against each other with adverse ramifications for organisational culture, including collegiality and academic citizenship.
GUR do not have any correlation with accomplishment in effectively realising the express social purposes of a public university, particularly concerned with acting in the public interest and for the benefit of society. However, the notion of elitism and the spirit of competition, both between and within universities, appear to be dominant in our universities.
Our universities appear to have subordinated their missions and visions to GUR, at least the institutions who prefer to be illuminated by mere numbers, calculated by other organisations with their own agendas, to become “top-end” of their caper. This rise of the rankings-inspired “micro-measurement approach” to university management turns out to be at the obfuscation of the “macro-contributions approach” to management (Carnegie, CMM, September 1 2021).
“‘What we value’ is what we are; ‘what we measure’ is what we become” (Carnegie CMM, October 6 2021). The transformative power of GUR is indeed a function of accounting as technical, social and moral practice as illuminated by Carnegie, et al., (2020, p. 72, 2021).(10)
Garry Carnegie, Emeritus Professor RMIT University
3). Available at The Way Forward 2018-2023: Recast COVID-19 – Cardiff University
8). Available at The dubious practice of university rankings · Elephant in the Lab