A new UNESCO publication, Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, debates the pros and cons of classifying universities. It brings together the people behind university rankings and their critics to debate the uses and misuses of existing rankings. Featuring voices from five continents, the publication aims to help the ultimate readers of rankings and league tables – be they students, parents, governments or institutional leaders – become better, and more discerning users of these tools. It provides a comprehensive overview of current thinking on the subject, and sets out alternative approaches and complementary tools for a new era of transparent and informed use of higher education ranking tables.
Of the world’s 17,000+ universities, only 1% are the focus of the “world university rankings” published by three of the most prominent “ranking houses”. Although varied in many respects, the top 200 ranked schools tend to be older (200+ years) establishments, focusing mostly on scientific research, with around 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty; and annual budgets exceeding 2 billion USD. Contributing authors from well-known ranking organizations open the debate in Rankings and Accountability, offering a detailed look at the methodological approaches they use, their strengths and shortcomings, and their evolution over time. For Nian Cai Liu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who helped launch the first ever global university rankings in 2003, rankings are not and should not be used as the sole source of information that guides decisions pertaining to the quality of universities. Yet for Phil Baty of the Times Higher Education and Ben Sowter of QS University Rankings, there is no doubt that rankings are “set to stay”, and can help improve transparency and accountability in higher education, in a global market of higher education.