By Barbara Kehm
When the invitation came (in January 2013) to give a presentation at the 5th International Conference on World Class Universities in Shanghai to celebrate 10 years of Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Class Universities I felt very honoured.
But I was also in a split mind concerning my presentation. Could I present a highly critical piece on global rankings and still be welcome at this conference? I did and to my great surprise it was well-received.
The Conference had about 150 participants from 40 countries around the world, among them not only renowned academics but also representatives of ranking producers from QS, THE, Thomson Reuters, CHE and of course the Shanghai Jiao Tong people themselves. So after almost two days of somewhat complacent papers in support of rankings, though often with a mission to improve them in one way or another, the last session before the close of the Conference came and my paper was the third of three in this session.
The session was opened by Jamil Salmi (former director of the Higher Education Section of the World Bank and now global higher education expert) who started his presentation with examples of the tallest and most beautiful buildings in the world. He let the audience guess which buildings were shown on his slide and where they were located. The audience guessed correctly.
Then Jamil asked: “And do you think these buildings are characteristic for the general housing situation in the country?” With that he had his audience enthralled.
Next came Ellen Hazelkorn from the Dublin Institute of Technology. Of course, everybody in the room was aware of her 2011 book “Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education. The Battle for World-Class Excellence” which is a highly intelligent and highly critical analysis of global rankings. One of the important points in her paper which stuck in my mind is the explanation how data delivered for free by universities for ranking purposes are monetarized by the ranking producers and have to be bought back by the universities.
Unintended side effects of global rankings
My own presentation mainly focused on the unintended side effects of global rankings, in particular on how universities wanting to play the ranking game have started to cheat with the data they submit in order to improve their position on the ranking scales. I interpreted that as a truly postmodern condition.