You have been warned: A breakthrough in rankings is coming
In a tweet
sent from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after the closing of the IREG
Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence conference I wrote: “IREG
2023 clearly articulated that in the coming years nothing in the world
of rankings will be the same. The main word of the conference was
‘breakthrough’. We discussed where and when it will happen, and we
looked for its first signs…”
Since university rankings have been a hot issue in higher education
debates for a long time and several people have asked me about this
future breakthrough, I will try to explain what I mean.
A view from Central Asia
Far away from the traditional ranking conferences, Tashkent turned out
to be an excellent site for the IREG 2023 Conference. Once, its cities
of Samarkand and Bukhara were a key link on the Silk Road and now
Uzbekistan is a fast-developing country that has made education and
science the basis of its modernisation efforts.
The annual IREG conferences are the world’s only neutral place where
rankers, higher education experts and analysts as well as universities –
often represented by rectors – meet.
The issues discussed there often have a direct impact on rankings and their standards.
Judging by the feedback, IREG 2023 was a creative and refreshing event. Here are three characteristic comments:
• Laylo Shokhabiddinova, head specialist of the international rankings
department at Tashkent State Transport University, said: “From around
the world, we have come to share our experiences, ideas and insights on
ranking in higher education. It has been an eye-opening experience for
me, and I am grateful for the chance to connect and collaborate with
such an esteemed group of professionals. As universities continue to
navigate a rapidly changing landscape, it is more important than ever to
stay connected and learn from each other.”
• Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, Canada,
stated: “One of the most interesting ranking discussions I’ve heard in
years. The difference in discourse around rankings after leaving a rich
country is huge – here there is much less about marketing and much more
about system control or benchmarking.”
• Komiljon Karimov, first deputy minister of higher education, science
and innovation in Uzbekistan, commented: “I often participate in various
conferences and seminars, but I have not met such a substantive and
engaged discussion for many years.”
The conference in Tashkent showed how pragmatic and hopeful expectations
about rankings are among universities and governments of countries
outside Europe and North America.
They need the rankings as a tool to monitor implementation of reforms in
higher education, to improve the quality of education and not for the
sake of prestige. But this aspect has already been analysed by Usher in
his highly recommended blog under the title “Rankings Discourses: West, East and South
So, what new trends and ideas emerged in Tashkent about the global
rankings landscape? To properly interpret new trends, we need to go back
to the turn of the century and the beginning of the era of
massification and globalisation of higher education. The UNESCO World
Conference of 1998 was not able to properly describe this phenomenon.
There was simply no comparable data available. It’s hard to believe, but
the situation has not changed much since.
Concern about this state of affairs was sounded by Philip Altbach 10 years ago in a University World News
article, “Long-term thinking needed in higher education
in which he regretted that none of the global or regional organisations
with the necessary potential and prestige (the UN, UNESCO and the OECD)
had taken the necessary action on data collection.
He even went so far as to say that they had “abdicated” responsibility
from the roles they should perform. He wrote: “There is a desperate need
for ongoing international debate, discussion and regular data
collection on higher education. At present, we have only a fragmented
picture at best.”
Similarly unsuccessful in setting up an updated database was the
European Union. Projects financed by the EU, such as the European
Tertiary Education Register (ETER) had been undertaken but never fully
implemented. This is why rankings, first national, then international,
have been a discovery, introducing ‘countability’ to higher education.
The first conference of an international group of ranking experts (from
which IREG was born) was in Warsaw in June 2002. There were no
international rankings yet, but national rankings (including US News
Best Colleges in the USA, Maclean’s in Canada, CHE in Germany and
Perspektywy in Poland) were such a fascinating phenomenon that Jan
Sadlak from UNESCO-CEPES and Andrzej Kozminski, rector of Kozminski
University, invited a group of ranking creators to a debate in order to
exchange information. I spoke there about Perspektywy’s first 10 years in ranking
The next meeting, in Washington DC, in 2004, included Nian Cai Liu with
his brand new Shanghai Ranking. At the 2006 meeting in Berlin, the IREG
group adopted the famous “Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher
Education Institutions” which introduced quality standards for rapidly
emerging new rankings.
Had UNESCO or any other international organisation been able to collect
data globally and annually update reliable information on higher
education, international rankings would probably never have gained such
momentum and importance. But politicians, or rather bureaucrats, have
failed, and not for the first time.
As a result, the short history of modern rankings (40 years of national
rankings and 20 of international ones) has seen them gain an inflated
role which they did not initially aspire to. It is a fascinating history
of exploration, confusion and rivalry.
Don’t break the thermometer
We all see and feel that the world is changing and that it is changing
in many ways. Geopolitical forces are shifting and technological
advancements and artificial intelligence are both promising and scary.
All this has a strong impact on higher education and, consequently, on
the academic rankings. The rankings landscape is changing quickly too.
A new approach to rankings has emerged in the form of the impact
rankings, reflecting university contributions to social goals. The range
of regional and ‘by subject’ rankings have also grown.
At the same time, criticism of rankings has intensified, particularly
from the European higher education and research community. There are new
initiatives (the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment
to name one) which are searching for new conceptual approaches and tools for university assessment.
IREG Observatory welcomes the search for ever better tools to measure
and evaluate excellence in research and higher education. However, we
see no need to breed a ranking phobia in the process. Assessment and
rankings serve different purposes. IREG expressed this very clearly in
its position paper, “Assessment and rankings are different tools
”, published last December.
Higher education around the world faces many difficult problems, but
rankings are not the cause of them. Rankings are like a thermometer that
signals various academic illnesses. But neither sickness nor fever
disappears when we break the thermometer. The same applies to rankings.
At the countless ‘summits’ organised almost weekly by the major ranking
players, the audience is told that the rankings and methodologies are
approaching the pinnacle of human achievement, and that the answer to
every university rector’s dreams is to purchase a ‘marketing package’, a
kind of miracle medicine.
It is not for nothing that some now consider the big ranking
organisations to be little more than ‘prestige-selling companies’ rather
than just a rankings provider, with rankings serving merely as the
‘cherry on the cake’.
There can be no meaningful analysis without good data, data that meets
the agreed standard, that is properly collected, externally validated,
updated at least once a year, if not more frequently, and is widely
available though not necessarily free, because quality costs. The fees,
however, should be reasonable.
Such data, however, cannot be obtained without the cooperation of
national education authorities. In turn, they must collect such data for
the efficient realisation of their public policy and economic strategy.
The data collected directly from universities by ranking organisations
and adjusted to their requirements have many imperfections that have
been well identified.
This applies to QS, Times Higher Education
organisations that use surveys sent to and collected from universities.
Of course, when no other options are available, flawed data serves
better than none at all. However, let me point out that better
databases, anchored in national systems, have already appeared and, year
by year, are increasingly available.
M’hamed el Aisati, vice-president at Elsevier, and an analyst endowed
with an impressive “ranking intuition”, emphasised in his speech in
Tashkent the growing need for big data platforms to evaluate the impact
of research, its visibility, academic collaboration and innovation.
He then presented the first already tested and operational national
research evaluation platforms which are being used in Japan and Egypt.
What is a national research evaluation platform? As Aisati explained:
“It is a big data platform that provides a knowledge network to support
high-value decisions. It is a knowledge network that provides an
integrated view of relevant research data, ensuring that high-value
client decisions are based on an inclusive, truthful and unbiased view
of their country’s research ecosystem.”
Such a platform is modular. It collects dispersed data, including
digitisation. Non-English language data is being translated into
English. Linking and profiling of references as well as automatic
classification and metrics are provided.
In less specialised language: the big data national research evaluation
platforms cover the entire research output of Japan and Egypt, including
their academic characteristics. Hearing this at the IREG 2023
Conference, Professor Piotr Stepnowski, rector of the University of
Gdansk in Poland, said in an emotional outburst: “This will radically
change evaluation of individual countries in world science!”
Yes, it will! In fact, it already signals the beginning of a
‘breakthrough’, the word that best describes the essence of the
discussion in Tashkent.
The role of AI
The subject of big data has appeared in various ranking-related
conversations for over a dozen years. It is obvious that the global
‘data ocean’ on science and higher education can create new analytical
possibilities and, consequently, new solutions in the ranking area. By
the way, ‘data ocean’ was one of the key phrases of the IREG 2019
Conference in Bologna.
But the excitement about this potentially revolutionary technology has
been effectively dampened by the so-called ‘artificial intelligence
winter’. It was impossible to meet the huge expectations presented by
the first AI algorithms because two things were still missing: data that
could be sent in bulk, and computing power of sufficient capacity.
Only in the last 10 years has computing power, as well as very fast,
high-bandwidth communication, like the 5G systems, allowed artificial
intelligence to be used effectively. The emergence of ChatGPT and the
rapid spread of this application has brought millions of people closer
to the practical implementation of AI.
At the same time, in many countries solid database systems covering
higher education and science have been created (the author of this text
was the leader of the team that prepared the design of such a system in
Poland, currently functioning under the name POL-on
So we now have both the data and the desired computational power. It
would be naive not to expect that a platform based on giant higher
education databases and AI algorithms would soon make an appearance in
the university rankings field. The question is: ‘Who will be the first
to come up with such a ranking platform or application?’.
Waldemar Siwinski is president of the IREG Observatory on Academic
Ranking and Excellence, and founder of the Perspektywy Education