Today (15 December 2016), HEPI publishes International university rankings: For good or ill? by Bahram Bekhradnia.

Rankings of global universities, such as the THE World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities claim to identify the ‘best’ universities in the world and then list them in rank order. They are enormously influential, as universities and even governments alter their policies to improve their position.

The new research shows the league tables are based almost exclusively on research-related criteria and the data they use are unreliable and sometimes worse. As a result, it is unwise and undesirable to give the league tables so much weight.

The author of the report and HEPI President, Bahram Bekhradnia, said:

We have followed the evidence to its conclusion and show that international rankings are one-dimensional, measuring research activity to the exclusion of almost everything else. They do not match the claims made for them. They fail to identify the “best” universities in the world, given the numerous functions universities fulfil that do not feature in the ranking. Indeed, what is arguably their most important activity – educating students – is omitted.

Universities, their governing bodies and governments should heed our unavoidable conclusion: they should focus on their core functions because it is the right thing to do, not because it may improve their position in any rankings.

Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, said:

This study is overdue. Many people working in higher education enjoy looking at the league tables to see which universities are up and which are down. But what should be a fun talking point is taken ever more seriously with each passing year.

Governments are now making funding decisions according to league table positioning and university managers are being held to account for a set of measures which are poorly understood, use questionable data and are limited in scope. This may even cause harm by deflecting institutions from their full range of activities.

League tables will continue. But we hope those who use league tables will come to take them with a pinch of salt, that league table compilers will improve the data they use and that policymakers will be very careful before using them to set policy.

Notes for Editors

Bahram Bekhradnia founded the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2002 and became its first President in 2014. Prior to establishing HEPI, he was Director of Policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

The report considers the inputs for the various international league tables and discusses their overall weaknesses before considering some improvements that could be made. These include:

  • ranking bodies should audit and validate data provided by universities;
  • league table criteria should move beyond research-related measures;
  • surveys of reputation should be dropped, given their methodological flaws;
  • league table results should be published in more complex ways than simple numerical rankings; and
  • universities and governments should not exaggerate the importance of rankings when determining priorities.