The main global rankings of universities have been published recently and with them, the predictable news headlines. However, over the years, the headlines have taken on a more geopolitical edge: An opinion article in The Wall Street Journal asks “Can U.S. Universities Stay on Top?” Public Affairs Ireland claims, “Irish Universities Lose Ground in World Rankings.” ABS-CBN News in the Philippines says, “Budget Cuts Blamed for Low University Rankings.” And The Telegraph celebrates, “British Universities on the Rise.”
It seems clear that it’s not just university “insiders,” as my colleague Michael Bastedo suggests, who are interested in the rankings. National competitiveness and a country’s ability to attract investment and talent are now bound up in the prestige associated with global rankings.
The pervasive focus on the top 100 can obscure the changing geography of academic activity. While major structural inequalities exist between developed economies and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the inequity depends on what is being measured. Many countries in the developed world are experiencing a severe crisis of public and private debt, but Brazil’s development bank has a balance sheet four times that of the World Bank, and China and India are both investing heavily.
All of that reminds me of the Olympics. Admittedly, they are fading fast from our collective memory, but there are some interesting similarities—and lessons—between international sports and university rankings.
The world’s biggest and most developed countries dominate the medals table in much the same way that top-ranked universities benefit from years of investment. And because there is a strong element of national prestige associated with being on top, countries such as China, Britain, and Australia invest large sums. Winning is often considered a proxy for economic prowess, and is used to attract top talent.
While athletes do tend to compete for their country, those with dual citizenship or special attributes have been known to shop around in much the same way that institutions and highly cited scholars behave. Think of how lucrative Nobel Prize winners have become since the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities included them.
Then there is the distinction between professional and amateur athletes, although it is becoming blurred in many instances. (This reminds me of the difference between private and public universities or between old and new universities.) The former have the benefits of rigorous elite training with professional coaches in world-class facilities, while the other athletes struggle to combine sporting achievement with the routines of ordinary life. Direct competition in such circumstances is undoubtedly weighted in favor of the former.
The number of medals won can depend on the particular sport. Focusing on particular sports can be especially advantageous in much the same way that investment in the biosciences and medicine are likely to yield high bibliometric and citation outcomes—and thus higher rankings.
But what, ultimately, is success?
Ranking countries by the number of gold medals or by the total number of medals they won yields predictable results. Countries like the United States, which has a well-established sports infrastructure, and China, which has heavily invested in athletics, are at the top.
Overlooked are the important successes of smaller and developing nations. For example, Cuba and Kazakhstan came in 17th and 18th, respectively, in total number of medals won. According to an analysis by CBC News, wealthy or populous countries generally sent bigger teams to the Olympics—and also won more medals. On the other hand, some smaller and less-well-off nations were far more efficient, winning more medals for the size of their teams.
Aside from the fun of the exercise, what this shows us (again) is that success or excellence can have very different meanings depending upon what is being measured, by whom, and for what purpose. This is true for the Olympics and for university rankings. Dissecting the medal chart according to type of medal won—gold, silver, or bronze—can produce one set of results. Leveling the playing field by taking account of countries’ population size or GDP per capita can alter the result significantly.
Those who closely watch the “winners” and “losers” in university rankings should well remember that.