Global University Rankings: Challenges for European Higher Education

Europe of Knowledge |

What effects global university rankings have in diverse national, disciplinary and institutional contexts? Why do they attract so much attention? What do they tell about global power shift and changing transnational policy discourse on higher education? Do rankings facilitate stratification and commodification of higher education?

Today a new book Global University Rankings: Challenges for European Higher Education edited by Tero Erkkilä is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Tero Erkkilä tells about their research approach and findings.


Q1: Why a book on global university rankings?

The first global university rankings were published just a decade ago, but these policy instruments have become highly influential in shaping the approaches and institutional realities of higher education. The rankings have portrayed European academic institutions in a varying light. There is intense reflexivity over the figures, leading to ideational changes and institutional adaptation that take surprisingly similar forms in different European countries.

This book explores the novel topic of global university rankings and their effects on higher education in Europe. The contributions of this edited volume outline different discourses on global university rankings, and explore the related changes concerning European higher education policies, disciplinary traditions and higher education institutions. The contributions in this volume critically assess global university rankings as a policy discourse that would seem to be instrumental to higher education reform throughout Europe.

We chose to write this book as there seemed to be little contextualised analysis of the rankings’ effects. Looking at the changes in Europe, we were able to analyse the rankings effects in a particular institutional context, while still being able to make comparisons between country cases.


Q2: Why do they receive so much attention and does attention translate into
major policy impacts?

There is something persuasive about the numerical presentation of these evaluations that simplifies the complex reality of higher education, making it seemingly easy to compare universities and higher education systems globally. Moreover, the rankings attract media attention, similar to rankings in other domains, such as rankings on corruption or economic competitiveness. In this respect the global university rankings are part of a broader trend of global indicators.

With regards to rankings’ effects, I tend to see this as Foucauldian reflexivity, where policy actors on the EU and national level are abiding to a perceived norm. However, as discussed in the book, it would be too simplistic to label this as outright isomorphism, as the discourse on rankings tends to have national variants, reflecting public values and institutional traditions. There are major policy shifts as a result but the impacts are rather indirect and again conditioned by institutional traditions, as our case studies show.


Q3: The book focusses on the challenges that rankings pose to European higher education. What is specific about European reactions to rankings that is different from other world regions?

Europe makes a particularly interesting context for analysis, as the global rankings have shown European universities in a varying light. This has been damaging for the European self-understanding that stems from the long institutional history of higher education in this context. Moreover, the rankings should be read in the context of global power shifts, where Europe is struggling to keep pace with the United States and Asia in the global economy. As is argued in the book, it is no coincidence that the first global ranking originated from Asia.


Q4: One part of the book analyses the influence of rankings on social sciences and humanities. Does the influence of rankings differ between the disciplines?

Yes, very much. The publication patterns of medicine and natural sciences are best suited for the rankings, whereas social sciences and humanities have been at odds with the rankings. In particular, book publications typical for these disciplines are poorly acknowledged by the rankings. Consequently, these disciplines are under pressure to change their publication patterns. Moreover, there is an issue of language, as the rankings strongly emphasise English language publications. Scholars are now under pressure to publish in English, which is a genuine problem for national non-English journals that are struggling to find articles, most felt in social sciences and humanities.


Q5: What are the main lessons from the book for higher education scholars, universities and policy-makers?

To understand the fundamental characteristics of rankings, one also needs to understand the global economic context in which the rankings are being produced and to what ends. While different conceptualizations apply for the rankings, they can be seen as an incident of transnational policy discourse on modernizing higher education with many sub-discourses that meet in the emphasis of performance. Though the rankings’ power aspects are often portrayed in somewhat totalizing fashion, the actual impacts of rankings are mostly indirect. Moreover, the institutional outcomes of rankings are likely to be conditioned by the institutional traditions, marking also an opening for resisting the rankings.

Nevertheless, there are alarming changes in the academic practices both at institutional and disciplinary levels in Europe that point to the negative effects of global rankings, such as the stratification of higher education institutions and their homogenization at the cost of diversity, as well as the commodification of higher education. The universities are compelled to reconsider their traditional values and functions, which may have significant negative effects on society, the economy included. The rankings also have a strong potential for producing unintended consequences and counter-finalities that make them problematic measures or means for any reform. For this reason higher education policies in Europe, and elsewhere, should remain highly critical of the simplistic policy feed of global university rankings.


Q6: What would be promising research lines for future studies on global university rankings?

While the methodological limitations and flaws of the rankings have been broadly reported, the field of global university rankings is still developing. There are new types of knowledge products entering the ‘market’ and we are also seeing a shift from rankings to broader evaluation schemes. But the numerical presentation of such evaluations are not likely to go away. Social scientists should critically analyse the figures and also try to find alternatives for the measures. With regards to the rankings impacts, we still have a limited time perspective, as the global rankings have only been around for ten years. It is therefore important to analyse the production of rankings on the global level but also make contextualised analyses of their effects on national level, including the mechanisms through which the rankings are influential. At the University of Helsinki we have two projects to focus on the above issues: Policy Instruments and Global Governance (Funded by the Acedemy of Finland) and Europe in Numbers (Funded by the Helsinki University Network for European Studies). We would be happy to hear from other researchers working on similar topics.


Tero Erkkilä is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki. His research interests include knowledge governance, public institutions and collective identities. He has published on accountability, transparency, public information management, global governance indicators, higher education rankings and EU concepts. His recent publications include Government Transparency (Palgrave Macmillan) and Global University Rankings (editor, Palgrave Macmillan). He is currently heading two research projects on global governance indicators funded by the Academy of Finland and the Helsinki University Network for European Studies.