By AISHA LABI
A Chinese list of the world's top universities would seem an unlikely concern for French politicians. But this year, France's legislature took aim at the annual rankings produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which claims to list the 500 best universities in the world. The highest-ranked French entry, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, comes in at No. 42.
Outraged by France's overall weak showing in the rankings, which are dominated by American and British institutions, the French Senate issued a report arguing that the researchers were clearly biased in favor of English-speaking institutions.
Gallic pride aside, the legislators' concern underscores a fundamental change in higher education. Simply put, it has become an international enterprise. The flow of students, researchers, and money now takes place on a global scale. As a result, people are paying close attention to where their institutions end up in international as well as national rankings, however flawed they may be.
"Rankings are now part of the landscape, whether we like it or not," says Pierre de Maret, a former rector of the Université Libre de Bruxelles and a board member of the European University Association.
He is no fan of the methodology used by the Shanghai rankings, but, he concedes, the list "has had a direct impact at the government level and has really shaken things up."
Apportioning the Money
Some governments and universities use rankings to help determine how much public money the institutions receive and how that money is spent. In Malaysia, after two midranked universities slid down the charts of a popular listing put out by Britain's Times Higher Education, a weekly magazine, the prime minister set up a national committee to see how the country's public universities could raise their international standing. One of the two institutions, the University of Science, Malaysia, hired a British consultant to examine the publication's methodology for possible bias.
Growth in the number of universities looking to set up international partnerships also fuels the rankings obsession. Most administrators want to be certain that they are forging links with institutions of equivalent heft.
International-rankings tables, which did not even exist a decade ago, are also increasingly used by the world's roughly three million international students to decide where to study.
"Rankings have gone global at exactly the same time that universities are fighting over global students as a resource," says Robert J. Coelen, vice president for international affairs at Leiden University and founder of a regularly held international symposium on rankings at Leiden.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Times Higher Education put out the two most-watched international listings. More than 30 countries also produce some sort of national rankings system, says Thomas D. Parker, a senior associate at Washington's Institute for Higher Education Policy, which has been outspoken in the rankings debate.
Regardless of the methodology or metrics, the same handful of institutions tend to dominate the top 25 places of the various tables, and they will very likely always attract the best international students.
It is at the next level that the rankings effectively come into play, says Mr. Coelen.
For a university like his, ranked 76th by Shanghai, "we're interested in talented students in the next batch," he says. Well-regarded institutions in the top 100 or so, like Leiden, "are being helped by the rankings system. We know students use it, and that they start looking farther down the ladder if they don't get into the top tier."
The Shanghai list, which first appeared in 2003, was the first globally focused ranking of universities and quickly came to dominate the new field. For Europeans, the Chinese table has driven home the message of just how wilted the continent's academic laurels have become.
Because European universities are still almost entirely subsidized by public money, a higher-education sector that is perceived to be failing to measure up to international competition becomes a political liability.
In France and Germany, Shanghai's focus on research prowess has been a backdrop to discussions about how to better integrate scientific research - historically the preserve of specialized institutes - and higher education.
Germany reached a recent decision on dividing nearly two billion euros among designated universities largely on the basis of how strong they were in research.
In France, a central goal of a new law intended to shake up the higher-education system is increased collaboration among institutions involved in scientific research.
Rankings are also having what some critics decry as an excessively determinative effect.
In the Netherlands, a proposal to retool immigration policy to favor skilled migrants would limit the allocation of visas only to graduates of universities in the top tiers of two internationally recognized tables.
Several countries, including Nigeria and Kazakhstan, appear to reserve publicly financed scholarships for students who attend universities ranked above a certain cutoff point, according to one World Bank expert.
Gaming the System
Many institutions, especially those ranked in the middle of the lists, have begun to make key financial, administrative, and hiring decisions with an eye toward improving their scores, according to some rankings experts.
Few are willing to name names, but anecdotes abound of institutions' hiring frequently cited scientists, even if they are not necessarily the best qualified or the most well-regarded in their fields. In South Korea, the relative dearth of foreign academics and professors with international reputations is seen as the main reason that a well-regarded university like Seoul National University does not score higher than 51st on the Times Higher Education list.
"Korean universities have little chance to make themselves known abroad or become internationally competitive because they lack star faculty," Ahn Su-mi, the Korean education ministry's deputy director of academic-research promotion, told the Korea Herald this month.
The University of Tokyo, whose president has complained that international rankings do not accurately reflect the strengths of Japanese institutions, has nonetheless decided to hire more foreign researchers, in hopes of raising the university's standing.
In Malaysia, universities have been known to list ethnic Chinese Malaysians as foreign students, because the Times's formula includes the number of international students as a variable.
In Australia, where universities are heavily dependent on foreign students to help balance their budgets, vice chancellors have been given bonuses for helping to push their institutions a few crucial slots up the tables.
"Rankings matter tremendously," says Daniel J. Guhr, a higher-education consultant in California whose clients include universities in Europe, Australia, and the United States. "People need to be able to contextualize, and for the first time in educational history you have the tools in hand to do so."
Mr. Guhr notes that even some American colleges that have traditionally focused solely on their position in domestic rankings, such as those put out by U.S. News & World Report, now pay attention to their international standing. Typically these are secondand third-tier institutions, which must compete more aggressively for foreign students.
Building a Better System
Both the Shanghai and the Times Higher Education lists seem to have as many critics as fans. The critics say the methodology is flawed, with Shanghai putting too much emphasis on scientific research and the Times on the opinions of people at peer institutions.
More broadly, there are also fundamental questions about the utility of even the best cross-border assessments by fellow academics.
When officials of Germany's Center for Higher Education Development tried to broaden its well-regarded national rankings to Switzerland's German-speaking universities, the effort fell flat.
"They found that Swiss professors knew nothing about German universities and their German counterparts, just one country away," says Mr. Coelen, of Leiden University. "How can you go around the world asking people to tell you what the top university is in your discipline when from one country to the next you cannot get a reliable result?"
Some critics are attempting to fix perceived biases by creating their own ranking systems. French rectors have thrown their collective support behind developing a European ranking that would take into consideration the strengths of institutions at which the focus is on the humanities and social sciences, and would include such criteria as student satisfaction.
Locating 'Common Ground'
The Institute for Higher Education Policy, which is trying to bring more coherence to the process, recently set up an online clearinghouse to help differentiate among the fast-growing number of ranking systems.
"We began to see how important rankings were becoming in the landscape," says Mr. Parker, a senior associate at the Washington think tank. "This is an attempt to try to establish some sort of common ground about what constitutes good practices."
A similar effort is taking place within Unesco's European Centre for Higher Education, based in Bucharest, Romania.
Two years ago, its International Ranking Expert Group endorsed a set of 16 principles of good practice. This year the group spun off a new body, the International Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, that will review the various rankings tables and eventually produce a certification of sorts.
Although susceptible to manipulation and misuse, rankings have become an integral part of international higher education. Even their critics concede that they can serve an important function.
"Our concern is that they are being used as a proxy for quality, and that is sad," says Mr. Coelen, of Leiden. "As a marketer on the right side of the divide, I have to say that there is some benefit. As an academic, I have to raise serious questions about the methodology."