Survey Questions Impact of University Rankings

June 22, 2010

Despite the oft-touted importance of rankings on a university's reputation, they may not influence national reputation as much as some institutions have thought.

A new survey of 49 of the top-ranked 137 universities found that those institutions noticed little or no impact on their reputation within their home countries from either a rise or a fall in the rankings.

But the institutions did notice that a rise in the rankings often increased the number of applications coming from international students. A rankings rise also helped in attracting academic employees and made it easier to form international partnerships.

All told, rankings increases appeared to have more of an international influence on reputation than on a university's standing at home.

The Knowledge Partnership, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, England, reported the survey results at a meeting it held in Hong Kong with the University of Hong Kong and other members of its World 100 Reputation Network.

The company looked at institutions in the top 100 of both the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, put out by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Higher Education, in China. Because the two listings are not identical, the pool of universities for the survey was 137, not 100.

About one-third of the respondents to the new survey said they had numerical targets in mind that they wanted to reach in the rankings. Two-thirds of the respondents had strategies for improving their positions in the rankings.

The survey found little evidence that members of senior management at institutions that experienced a rankings drop had contingency plans for such an occurrence. The majority of respondents also said that a higher ranking was not the most crucial external metric for measuring success. They suggested others, such as research funding and the quality of international partners.

Other speakers at the meeting discussed a variety of data and developments:

  • Two hundred and fifty locations in the world talk about being "education hubs," said Peter Upton, country director for the British Council in Hong Kong. Eight of those locales regard themselves as "world class" education hubs. Mr. Upton predicted that by 2015, China will be a net importer of students, instead of an exporter as it is now. Hong Kong is one location that is enormously popular with students from mainland China. The University of Hong Kong, for example, had 8,000 applicants from the mainland in 2009 for 273 available places.
  • The Hong Kong secretary for education, Michael Suen, said that Hong Kong had set aside six pieces of land for higher-education uses, including one that could create 100,000 square meters of floor space in the hope of creating an additional 8,000 places for college and university students.