A university is more than its rank
In an era where university rankings seem to dominate higher education discussions and marketing messages, more critics and leaders are now leading a charge to challenge their influence and power. Their collaborative efforts have the potential to reshape the landscape of higher education, making it more equitable and meaningful for students and institutions alike.
Our journeys into the realm of university rankings each began with what we now realise is a shared belief in the need for a rethink. The methods used by league tables have, as we have published, “no legs to stand on”. The development of research assessment reform efforts such as the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and the Coalition on Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) provide the perfect foundation to address this issue. Taking a critical statistical approach to the problem also allows us to challenge the rankings from a quantitative and scientific perspective. Understanding the external policy drivers facing global university executives and insights into the thoughts, strategies and views of their leaders, can also help identify the barriers to change and inform a way forward.
Collaboration across these areas of expertise is born out of a shared passion to question the role of rankings in students’ decision-making processes and universities’ behaviours, given their clear methodological limitations.
We have delved deeply into the subject, including in publications like Significance and in a podcast episode that asked, “Do university rankings really tell us anything?”. This has occurred in parallel with earlier episodes of the HEDx podcast and writings from it that pose the question “What if there were no university rankings?”. The short answers are that they do not provide a meaningful assessment of an institution’s quality or its suitability for prospective students and that not having them would necessitate the development of better and more robust approaches to assessments of institutional quality, leadership and culture.
Our critiques of existing ranking agencies have extended to offering “free advice.” We advocated for a more inclusive approach that visualises all world universities, abandoning flagship overarching rankings and including qualitative data alongside quantitative metrics. Ideally these assessments won’t take the form of ‘rankings’ at all, but profiles that surface and contextualise the relative strengths of all institutions.
The INORMS’ initiative, “More Than Our Rank” (MTOR) aims to provide just such a platform for universities to share their stories beyond rankings. This initiative is a welcome alternative in a world where reductive league tables omit the rich and diverse narratives of universities.
As we seek to achieve sustainable research funding, there is criticism of the way we currently do so in Australia through surpluses generated by international student fees. This acknowledges the real challenges that universities face when trying to balance their ideals with their financial needs. This is demonstrated by QUT’s dual role in being the first Australian university to participate in MTOR while also continuing to participate in and seek marketing advantage in the eyes of potential students from rankings. This demonstrates the operational realities of needing to both ‘play’ and ‘change’ the rankings game. . However, we might seek better evidence that rankings do drive international student university choice before continuing to use this as an excuse for maintaining our involvement in rankings.
The debate is far from limited to Australia. The University of Utrecht has recently withdrawn from global rankings, and an increasing number of U.S. universities are opting out of the US News and World Report subject rankings on the grounds that they embed inequities. A number of significant reports from the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, the European University Association, and the Dutch Universities, have all argued for a change in the way our sector engages with rankings.
Despite these positive developments, the recent announcement of a new ranking by the Australian Financial Review has raised eyebrows. This new ranking, developed by a former VC and an ANU professorial statistician, adds another layer of complexity to the rankings conundrum for Australian institutions while adding nothing of any quality or substance to the assessment of our universities’ strengths.
So, where are we heading with all of this, and what advice do we have for university leaders and policymakers? The answer is clear: it’s time to rethink our engagement with university rankings. University leaders can no longer lay claim to intellectual credibility whilst allowing intellectually incredulous assessments drive their institutional strategies. Neither can they pay lip service to caring about equity, diversity, and inclusion, whilst uncritically supporting inequitable ranking methodologies. Whilst disengaging with rankings altogether is not an option for institutions reliant on international recruitment, they should seek out ways to educate their users as to their limitations, and to promote not only how they are ranked, but how they are engaging responsibly with the rankings. Leaders should prioritize their institution’s unique identity and mission over chasing arbitrary numbers. Policymakers, particularly those tasked with creating a more equitable higher education system, should recognize the potential harm rankings can cause. As the Australian Minister of Education received a report on how to make higher education more equitable, the importance of tackling the issues posed by rankings cannot be overstated.
We would call for the sector to reimagine new forms of university assessment that are independent, robust, and reliable. The power to redefine the future of higher education lies with those who recognise that rankings should not drive decisions; rather, they should be just a reflection of a university’s character and impact.
It’s beyond high time to break free from the shackles of rankings that have hindered the progress of higher education. Let’s celebrate diversity, innovation, and a commitment to students. After all, as Jason Clare the Minister of Education rightly said at the launch of the THE World University Rankings in Sydney recently, “Great universities are not just about rankings, they are about students. They are not a place of privilege; they are a place of opportunity.” It’s a message that can guide changing the future of higher education for good.
 Gadd.E., 2020, University rankings need a rethink, Nature, 26 November, Vol. 587, p. 523
 Barnett.A. and Gadd.E., 2022, University league tables have no legs to stand on, Significance, August 2022, The Royal Statistical Society.
First published in Campus Review on 5th December 2023.