Global university rankings: The ‘‘Olympic Games’’ of higher education? (A Summary)

This opinion piece draws on similarities between global university rankings and the Olympic Games to highlight issues with our obsession with global university rankings. The researchers begin by pointing out that like the Olympic Games, global university rankings are high-stakes and highly competitive. Success in rankings has tangible consequences for universities, including increased funding (from many arenas such as government, industry and private funding agencies) and increased interest from talented academics and potential students.

The rankings system is likened to a game, where universities compete to perform in the areas recognised by the ranking systems, such as keeping and attracting talented faculty (and therefore producing high level research). However, the environment each university operates in affects their ability to perform in the areas ranked by these systems. The ‘rules of the game’ therefore provide different universities advantages or disadvantages before the competition even begins.

Much like star Olympic athletes rarely come from countries which do not invest consistently in sporting facilities, top performing universities in global university rankings are rarely from countries which don’t invest strongly in education. Ability to compete in these rankings is therefore influenced by the location of the university and the willingness and ability of that country’s government to invest in education.

Similarly, the ability to attract and retain talented faculty is not determined solely by universities themselves. Salaries, opportunities and living conditions in local communities also affect talented scholars’ decisions regarding where to work, and automatically pushes many towards the countries that currently dominate the global university rankings. Even universities which cultivate excellent academics in lower income countries suffer from ‘brain drain’ which occurs when they lose local talent to high income countries with greater opportunities. The article references a similar issue of ‘brawn drain’ which occurs in sporting communities.

The researchers point out that an advantage also comes from being in an English-speaking country, which provides wider opportunities for publication, and often a similar cultural environment which serves as an advantage in the peer review process.

An interesting point made is that while only a finite number of universities can reach the top of these rankings (as only a finite number of Olympic athletes can receive medals), the number of universities that can achieve excellence is not limited. The researchers prompt us to recognise excellence which may never be reflected in global university rankings.

The piece ends with the observation that universities can serve crucial functions that are not recognised in global university rankings (such as providing accessible and quality education in their local communities), and should be able to focus on achieving excellence in that area, as opposed to all universities being required to strive for ‘Olympic –level’ performance in rankings.

Title: Global university rankings: The ‘‘Olympic Games’’ of higher education?

Authors: Maria Yudkevich1 • Philip G. Altbach2 • Laura E. Rumbley2

Published: Prospects (2015) 45:411–419

DOI: 10.1007/s11125-015-9365-y