Ranking games

Global university rankings have become a crucial part of the higher education landscape, shaping universities’ competitiveness and international reputation.

Professor Simon Marginson of the University of Oxford has likened these rankings, produced by organizations such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Times Higher Education, and QS World University Rankings, to a “zero-sum game,” where one institution’s rise in the rankings necessarily means another’s fall.

These rankings serve as a key factor in students’ college choices and drive universities to seek partnerships with highly ranked institutions.

In the search for exchanges, collaborations, and commercial opportunities, university partnerships have become akin to a match-making process, with top-ranked universities generally seeking out other top-ranked institutions.

The Oxford University Press recently published an article on the desire of certain Asian governments to build world-class universities, as measured by global rankings.

According to authors William Yat and Ryan Allen, these rankings have become a policy instrument for monitoring and measuring performance, steering institutions towards a global standard.

However, the reliance on data from English-language scientific production in these ranking systems has been criticized for promoting a narrow view of academic excellence and reproducing western hegemony in higher education.

Yat and Allen examine this phenomenon in five Asian countries: China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

In recent years, the authors have observed a shift in focus from catching up to the West to combining indigenous and Western knowledge, potentially signaling a new era in higher education in these countries.

However, the use of western benchmarks in global rankings has intensified hierarchical differentiation and stratification at both the national and global levels, widening the gap within national higher education systems and reinforcing the unequal global higher education landscape.

Several Asian countries have implemented higher education initiatives in an effort to improve their university rankings and establish world-class institutions.

China has invested heavily in 39 institutions through Project 211 and Project 985, eventually forming a league of nine prestigious universities known as the C9.

South Korea has focused on attracting international scholars through initiatives such as the Brain Korea (BK21) project and the World Class University project.

Japan has introduced initiatives such as the Twenty-First Century Centres of Excellence and the Global Centres of Excellence in an effort to increase internationalization, while Taiwan has rolled out programs including the Aim for the Top University Project and the Higher Education Sprout Project, to improve teaching quality and applied studies.

Malaysia has aimed to establish itself as a regional education hub through initiatives such as the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2020 and the Accelerated Program for Excellence (APEX).

Asian universities have seen significant success in major ranking systems, with 43 of the top 200 in the QS ranking in 2020.

However, the emphasis on rankings and resource allocation has led to disparity and uneven resource distribution within the national higher education sector.

The pressure to publish in international journals to improve rankings may also lead to a devaluation of research in other areas and create a highly competitive academic culture.

This can have negative consequences, such as a shift of resources away from educational activities and a potential threat to collegiality.

The impact of global university rankings has two sides, according to the authors.

On one hand, rankings serve as a path to world-class status and a tool for knowledge production and academic reputation.

They also reflect and contribute to the reshaping of the global higher education landscape and the global geopolitical landscape.

On the other hand, rankings have been criticized for their hegemonic and homogenizing effects, as well as for consolidating and monopolizing global power and knowledge.

Some argue that the criteria used in ranking systems, such as the degree of internationalization and the number of Nobel laureates, perpetuate whiteness in the global academic field.

Others view rankings as being driven by commercial considerations, with rankers willing to accommodate certain universities to meet their own goals.

In response, some Asian countries are reevaluating their approach to rankings and reconceptualizing them within their own context.

For example, China has revised its policies to move away from measures such as the Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index, which may lead to a drop in rankings.

Instead, these countries are focusing on meeting the needs of their communities, national development priorities, and critical global issues.

Read: William Yat Wai Lo and Ryan M. Allen, 2022, The Ranking Game, The Oxford Handbook of Higher Education in the Asia-Pacific Region,

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