Today UNESCO is assembling dignitaries from all over the world to talk about rankings in higher education. You may wonder what more remains to be said on that topic: rankings have been variously described as a distraction; a disease, even a disaster.
Rankings matter because higher education matters. Higher education matters not only because it drives innovation and growth but because it is a building block of social cohesion and democracy. Higher education matters to students and their families because it is crucial to personal development and to life chances. It matters to employers and employees because twenty-first century labour markets need twenty-first century skills.
Young people expect to be able to choose their university courses, and to do that they need information about the institutions and what they can expect from them. International rankings fill an information gap: the main reason for their growth is the expanding international student market. Last year around 320 000 international students were studying in Australia. That is almost six times the total number of students – Australian and overseas – that were there 50 years ago.
Those 50 years have seen a transition from a world in which higher education was reserved for an elite few to one where in some OECD countries it is an expectation for a majority. Students, employers and Governments need to understand how well our educational institutions and systems are doing.
You can be sure that very many prospective international students thinking of going abroad to study will look up one or more of the Shanghai, Times Higher or the QS rankings in order to help them decide which is the best place for them.
The problem is that they are unlikely to get that information from those rankings. Universities do much more than research –the great majority of them are primarily or exclusively teaching institutions - and those international rankings tell us nothing about teaching and learning.
The only internationally comparable and verifiable information that is available is on research output and impact. That is what the Shanghai ranking is based on and it does a good job of telling us what are and have been the leading research universities in the world.
That is why a group of OECD countries – and several others – are aiming to put things straight through the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes initiative. AHELO aims to establish a reliable way of collecting and analysing information on what higher education students have learned and can do. It is no simple task but the basis for this assessment is now in place and successful implementation of AHELO will transform the higher education accountability debate.
In the meantime, the international rankings that are currently available –for all the care that goes into compiling them – fall far short of capturing the range and depth of what universities and other higher education institutions do.
Accountability and transparency are essential and rankings have a valuable contribution to make. However when tools intended to provide information for students and their families are used to drive political and strategic decisions we have a problem. This is a zero-sum game: there will only ever be 100 universities in the “top” 100.
Rankings may be inconvenient, but they will not go away. They are not a disease, they are a symptom: a symptom of a lack of accountability and transparency which needs to be treated.
Go to the UNESCO/OECD/World Bank Global Forum: Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses
Follow the conversations on twitter: http://twitter.com/OECDLive #unirankings