University Rankings: an introduction

University rankings provoke strong opinions: praised by some, dismissed as worthless or bogus by critics. This report explores their history, impact, and current issues.

University rankings are rarely given to the art of understatement: Times Higher Education provides “the definitive list of the world's best universities”, whereas QS is simply there to answer the question of “who rules”.

The same could be said of their critics, from the president of Stanford, Gerhard Casper’s famous letter to the Editor of USNWR (US News and World Report) “[your rankings] - particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision – are utterly misleading” (Casper, 1996), to Malcom Grant, president of UCL, commenting that “rankings of universities are worthless” (Grant, 2010) or Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labour calling them “totally bogus” (Reich, 2015).

Rankings are praised by institutions that are well ranked, they are dismissed as methodologically weak, biased or simply bullshit by critics. They are analysed by the emerging scientific field of rankology (for a short overview see the bibliography of this report) and are the object of countless discourses on “the loss of competitiveness of our country” or “the rise of China”.

Their importance is linked not to any intrinsic strength or value but largely to their impact, and their impact is itself a result of the globalisation of Higher Education and Research.

This report aims to provide a basic introduction to the field. It is divided into three parts: a historical overview, an analysis of the impact of rankings and finally a review of some of the key current issues.

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