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Regular version of the site

Why Rankings Matter for Universities

University rankings, which increasingly impact both universities' development strategies and state policy in higher education, was one of the main topics discussed at the meeting of the HSE's International Advisory Committee.

HSE in Rankings

The main task of HSE's administration is to achieve the harmonious development of the whole university. In this sense, rankings that attract attention is not an end in itself but is instead an important tool in assessing the university effectiveness, says Vadim Radaev, HSE First Vice Rector in his welcoming speech. In addition, the rankings, with all their flaws, give a good idea of how the university looks from a comparative perspective.

Over the past two years HSE has made some progress in this area. And if, for example, the progress in QS World University Ranking can be described as moderate, in QS subject rankings HSE’s breakthrough is much more considerable. There are some key reasons for this: in the World University ranking, the natural and technical sciences, which HSE has only recently started developing (as compared with the social sciences and humanities that have always been fundamental to HSE), play an important role.

Rankings have become the driver of decision-making in higher education at institutional and national levels

But in QS Subject Rankings, HSE is already among the top 150 in economics and econometrics, sociology and political studies, and it is in the top 200 in philosophy, management and accounting and auditing. In the Times Higher Education ranking, HSE takes 83rd place in ‘Business and Economics’ globally. ‘We didn't expect such rapid growth in these rankings, we thought we would need more time. HSE is the first Russian university to achieve these results in social sciences,’ says Vadim Radaev.

Trust, but Verify

In not over-emphasizing rankings, HSE is taking the right approach, says Philip Altbach, member of the HSE International Advisory Committee, and Founding Director of the Center for International Higher Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The university's improved position in the rankings is one of the results of its development, not its cause. Professor Altbach agrees that the social sciences and humanities are underrepresented in these rankings. In addition, some rankings place too much emphasis on a university’s reputation, while others use indicators that are difficult to measure (such as the quality and nature of education, graduates’ employability, etc.).

Since those who compile the rankings aim to cover an increasing number of indicators, that means they will inevitably face new methodological problems. However, this does not mean the ‘end of rankings’ — they are here to stay, says Philip Altbach.

Ellen Hazelkorn, another member of the Committee, Policy Advisor to the Higher Education Authority (Ireland), agrees. On the one hand, rankings are important to every university. On the other hand, their impact on public policy is growing. Research conducted by Professor Hazelkorn in several countries has shown that rankings have become the driver of decision-making in higher education at institutional and national levels. This is the case in countries with very different academic and educational cultures, such as Russia, China, and Australia.

Why Ratings Matter

Universities and governments set their strategic goals and assess the results of their implementation in part based on these rankings. Rankings affect students’ and professors’ choice of a university to study and work at and potential partners’ decisions when selecting a university for international cooperation initiatives. Even when the word ‘ranking’ is not mentioned, it is replaced by such epithets as ‘best’ or ‘world class’, meaning exactly the same thing — among those ranked as leaders.

It is vital any university determines several major advantages and that it ‘digs deeper’ to develop them, rather than aiming at everything at once

A survey conducted by the European University Association (EUA) showed that 47% of universities mentioned their presence in international rankings in their development strategies as a ‘clear goal’, with another 14% including national rankings as among their aims. 86% of universities constantly monitor their positions in rankings.

What Strategy to Choose

Universities choose different strategies by which to advance in the rankings, but the result largely depends on how reasonable and applicable they are. This is well illustrated by the example of two universities — Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the University of Kentucky (USA). NTU, founded in Singapore in 1981, receives great political and financial support from the state. As a result, in a short time the university managed to increase key metrics for faculty, research, publications, international students and become the leader of THE ranking among ‘new universities’, in under 50 years. (HSE is very close to the top 50 in this ranking).

‘I call this ‘the Manchester United strategy’, says Ellen Hazelkorn. 'If you have so much money, resources and capabilities, what's stopping you?’

But not every university can estimate its capabilities correctly. The University of Kentucky aimed to be among the top 20 American universities by 2020. In order to achieve this goal it needed to additionally enroll almost 7,000 students and 1,000 lecturers and postdocs, as well as to increase research funding by 470 million dollars. However, this ambitious strategy has failed, and the 2007-2008 economic crisis also impacting the situation.

That's why universities should realistically assess their capabilities, and their aim of advancing up through the rankings should be consistent with the university’s mission. It is vital any university determines several major advantages and that it ‘digs deeper’ to develop them, rather than aiming at everything at once, says Ellen Hazelkorn.

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