Skip to Content

### The Era of Respect is Fading: Global Ranking Trends


Recently, there has been a surge in criticism aimed at global university rankings, sparking discussions on the diverse causes and potential consequences of this discontent. The future trajectory of these rankings remains uncertain, but it is highly likely that significant transformations will reshape the international ranking landscape in the coming years.

The inception of global rankings dates back to 2003 with the inaugural release of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This milestone occurred two decades after the establishment of the influential US News & World Report rankings for American higher education institutions.

Over the years, rankings have proliferated, evolving beyond traditional assessments of research excellence to encompass a wide array of categories such as web presence, sustainability, employability, social impact, and third missions.

Among the innovative developments, Times Higher Education (THE) is gearing up to introduce interdisciplinary and online learning rankings, promising an exciting and impactful addition to the ranking landscape.

The omnipresence of rankings is undeniable, serving as pivotal tools for attracting students and talented academics, evaluating research competencies, and shaping institutional strategies. These rankings have even influenced migration policies in various countries and have been utilized to regulate universities’ promotional activities.

Notably, Ulster University faced restrictions on labeling itself as “world-leading” due to its modest standings in THE and other ranking systems.

While rankings play a crucial role in informing stakeholders about the societal perceptions, research output, and overall standing of universities, they are not without their drawbacks. Institutions have been compelled to disproportionately focus on metrics that could bolster their ranking positions, leading to skewed priorities and unintended consequences.

Moreover, the methodological fluctuations and occasional opacity of well-known rankings have sparked controversies, causing unwarranted repercussions for universities and administrators. The erratic shifts in ranking scores have, at times, resulted in undeserved acclaim or criticism, affecting the careers of individuals and the reputations of institutions.

Despite the criticisms and flaws associated with global rankings, the absence of a comparative external evaluation system for universities seems inconceivable. Preceding the advent of modern rankings, informal hierarchies based on institutional prestige prevailed, often overshadowing the true diversity and capabilities of academic institutions.

While the debate surrounding the efficacy and fairness of global rankings continues to intensify, the landscape of higher education assessment is on the brink of significant transformation. The era of unwavering reliance on a few dominant ranking systems is waning, paving the way for a more dynamic and diverse ecosystem of regional and national assessments with innovative methodologies.

In this evolving landscape, countries and universities are expected to navigate the realm of rankings strategically, seeking alignments that best serve their interests and objectives. The shift towards regional and national rankings heralds a future characterized by greater diversity and innovation in the evaluation of academic institutions—a future that promises to be intriguing and transformative.

Richard Holmes, an independent writer and consultant, curates a blog focused on higher education trends and rankings.