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How do Universities Use Rankings?

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A report published yesterday by the European University Association (EUA) explores the diverse ways in which international university rankings are currently used by higher education institutions. Titled “Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes: Impact or Illusion?”, the report is the outcome of an EUA-led project spanning two and a half years.

Among the key findings, the EUA reports that 60% of surveyed European university representatives say rankings play a role in their institutional strategy, while 75% use rankings in marketing and publicity materials. International university rankings are most likely to be rated as having a high impact, ahead of national league tables, subject-specific rankings and other more specialized listings. Of these international rankings, the QS World University Rankings® is the most influential, with 52% of survey respondents identifying it as having a relatively high impact on their institution.

Rankings used to prioritize, revise and innovate

A large majority of European universities covered by the study were found to have processes in place to monitor their institution’s performance in the rankings, while three quarters said they also monitored other universities’ results. Almost 40% said rankings had already had an impact on managerial, organizational, strategic or academic actions, with another third saying this was planned.

Actions taken with reference to rankings results include the prioritization of research areas; decisions about resource allocation; revisions to university policies, recruitment criteria and formal procedures; and even the creation of new departments or programs.

The report notes that there is currently no clear pattern in the way universities, even of a similar type, respond to or monitor rankings. Often, it says, institutions use rankings in an “ad hoc” manner, in response to specific challenges or strategic needs. The study also acknowledges that international university rankings are approached in different ways by distinct groups, including governments and national higher education authorities, university leaders and the academic community as a whole, and of course international students.

Increased focus on “quality and performance”

Although stating that universities’ usage of rankings is diverse and often unsystematic, the report does identify four main applications: to fill gaps in information, for benchmarking, to inform decision-making, and in marketing communications. And, while warning universities to avoid becoming “diverted or mesmerized” by league tables, the report authors recognize that international university rankings have a potentially beneficial role to play: “[R]ankings have helped generate a greater awareness of the changing dynamics of the higher education environment, both nationally and internationally, and especially in response to increasing focus on quality and performance.”

To help universities make effective use of rankings, the report closes by offering some suggested guidelines. These require universities to found their approach to rankings in a clear understanding of their own institutional mission, to identify the university rankings (national or international) which are most appropriate, and to consider which actions and resource allocations would be most effective in order to improve performance.

The EUA also emphasizes that rankings are only one possible benchmarking tool, and should never be viewed in isolation or accepted uncritically. The report advises universities to invest in their own benchmarking activities, to draw on a range of sources, and to pursue a variety of approaches to communicating their institution’s strengths.

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The EUA report “Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes: Impact or Illusion?” is based on an online survey of European university representatives, alongside visits to institutions and a roundtable of university leaders and stakeholders. It follows two previous reports from the European University Association, published in 2011 and 2013, analyzing the methodologies of the major international university rankings. The full report is available to read online here.

Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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