The 2023-24 Times Higher Education THE and the Quacquarelli Symonds QS World Ranking of Universities have been published again. According to the THE, "carefully calibrated performance indicators [are used to] measure an institution's performance across four areas: teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook.” It is also stated that the world rankings, "help institutions build global brand visibility, forge strategic partnerships, and recruit international talent."

Similarly, the QS seeks to "generate international brand recognition" and increase the reputation and awareness of universities. This international ranking system "measures higher education performance, focusing on the metrics that matter most to each institution: research impact, reputational standing, sustainability, student employability, and internationalisation.” Also, it states that, "empowering motivated students across the globe to fulfill their potential is at the heart of the QS mission.”

Both ranking systems have been considered authoritative, trusted, and extensively observed.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities ARWU, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, had not released the ranking of universities at the time of writing this post.

The evaluation methodologies amongst these instruments include research output, number of citations, reputation, employer reputation, quality of faculty, including Nobel Laureates, international reputation and diversity, and internationalization, amongst others.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the “best” and “ideal” universities in the world are in wealthy countries, according to the rankings. Research output, publications, citations, and international reputation are paramount and measured by those instruments. The list is constant from year to year, and it is a source of attraction for international students. Internationalization is less problematic for these universities. .

In contrast, very few universities from poor and developing countries enter the rankings for obvious reasons. Certainly, universities in poor countries lack financial resources and are less competitive globally; they concentrate more on the local setting; therefore, their international reputation is diminished. Besides, good academics and doctoral and postdoctoral researchers may emigrate to countries where working conditions are perceived to be better and salaries are higher. Therefore, the brain drain is a problem.

There is another important issue that puts many countries at a disadvantage. English is the ruling international language of publications, citations, academic journals, and academic societies. Consequently, publications in other languages can be overlooked by the rankings. These rankings have been criticized for being unsuitable and not comprehensive enough.

Empirically, at least, we could sustain the argument that the world rankings are designed for universities in wealthy countries. We could argue that they are hurting universities in poor countries.

Do these rankings matter? Is there a robust definition of what constitutes an ideal university? The answer is not straightforward. Is it a big or small institution? Is it better at research or teaching? Is it a specialist science and technology institution with heavy research income, or does it focus primarily on the humanities and social sciences? Is it adventurous or risk-averse, as Michael Grant, UCL president, has eloquently pointed out?

Indeed, these rankings seem to be losing their magnetism. Serious criticisms have been emerging. For example, it has been argued that the rankings are pointless and should be abandoned. Thus, "THE devotes 90% and QS 70% to measuring research, respectively; they assign 33% and 50% to reputation. THE uses a subjective reputational survey to measure teaching quality, but it is unclear how anyone can rate teaching ability without being in the classroom. Internationalisation incentivises quantity over quality and often reflects a country's geographic position. Switzerland is one good example".

In one study, amongst many, the QS has been criticised for its biased use of citation databases. It has been said that the emphasis has been on citations from medicine, engineering, and the natural sciences; research output from the humanities and social sciences has not been to the same degree. The ranking has been criticised for putting too much emphasis on reputation.

The Shanghai Ranking has been criticised for undermining the importance quality of teaching and the humanities because it depends too much on award factors. Yale, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, law schools announced in November 2022 that they would not participate in the US News and World Report Rankings. The reasons for the categorical rejection are not a surprise: the biased, unreliable, and flawed methodology of the instruments.

The question for me personally is how these rankings translate into excellent quality in university teaching and learning. Based on my personal experience, these rankings are meaningless in the classroom. Why? Yes, research informs my teaching. I acknowledge that research and publications are important because they provide me with strong subject knowledge and keep me up-to-date in my discipline. However, what is paramount for me is the impact of teaching on students’ learning. Employing robust teaching methods, having knowledge of lesson planning, and providing students with an excellent learning experience should have a positive impact on learning.

I would argue that high-quality teaching and nurturing a positive learning environment where the students are at the centre of the learning process are what matter. Ultimately, addressing students’ individual needs, students' satisfaction, social mobility and transformation, and linking module content with the world of work are factors that remain extremely subjective and are valued by all students, yet these are factors ignored by these rankings.