By John Bramwell

11 September 2017 - 14:48

Photo of smiling US graduate
The success of US universities is increasingly reliant on private rather than state institutions. Photo ©

Rochelle Nicole used under licence and adapted from the original.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018 are with us, but there's little change. The British Council's John Bramwell explains.

Not much change this year

Let's leave aside which university rankings outperform other rankings. There are plenty for universities globally to choose from: the Times Higher Education Supplement and QS rankings may be the most obvious, but there are sub-categories on newer versus older universities, and country or continent groupings, and as a result, university marketing departments will be able to choose a statement that makes them look good.

Unsurprisingly, UK universities tend to prefer the ranking that gives them the highest position. We are left with the spectacle of pundits wringing every ounce of analysis they can from a set of figures that move little year on year.

Everyone is looking at the rise of China. This is even though, for the last three years, China has had exactly 12 universities in the top 500 – no different this year, although China's investment in its universities will undoubtedly continue to bring improvements, whether or not these show up in the rankings.

The UK had 12 universities in the top 100 this year: the same as last year, and the same as five years ago. 2016 was a better year, with 16 in the top 100, but it hardly seems to vary much. Some people say that there's a bigger gap between ‘high-ranking’ UK universities, and the less starry ‘also-ranking’ UK universities.

What effect policies have had beyond the top 100 – the cases of Brazil and India

It is perhaps more useful to ask what the rankings tell us about whether countries' higher education policies are working. Brazil and India provide good case studies.

Let's start with Brazil. A few years ago, it implemented one of the world’s biggest-ever mobility schemes, Science without Borders. Several millions of dollars were spent on sending Brazilians overseas and establishing new links and partnerships. Did it work? Four years on, the only Brazilian university ever in the top 150, University of São Paulo, has dropped out into the 200+ range, and has worsened its position yet further this year. There are no Brazilian universities in the top 250.

After evaluating Science without Borders, the Brazilian authorities decided that it had not raised standards in Brazil's universities. They are now implementing their own, locally focused policies, given that there will be less funding available for anything as ambitious to happen again.

India provides another dispiriting example. It recently announced a preference for focusing on making local institutions better, rather than bringing overseas excellence into the country. This is hardly new. It was reported as a focus in 2012. Since that time, however, Indian universities have continued to slide down the tables.

Something needs to be done to restore the Indian higher education system, but it is not clear whether introducing 20 new elite institutions will have a strong effect on India's high education system overall. It may improve India's ranking as a country, but it will hardly deal with its ambitious growth targets of 30 million new students in the next five years.

Nevertheless, the figures might suggest that a local investment policy is better value for sustaining a ranking profile, instead of an integrated international one. For example, it avoids the risk of giving overseas universities an extra advantage, as they would benefit from a higher internationalisation score simply by being in India. 

What the rankings might mean for China

The scores of overall points for all universities in the tables have continued to rise, indicating perhaps that standards are rising. It certainly confirms that universities cannot stand still – representing the same profile year on year will only result in a slide against other universities.

In that context, the rise of Chinese universities to slightly higher places in the rankings may be significant, rather than dramatic. It might be seen by the Chinese as a justification for increased investment in their own institutions – potentially at the expense of sending students overseas.

Chinese students may find overseas study less tempting

Indeed, this year's annual report by higher education data company MyCOS on graduate employment in China shows that there is no benefit to a Chinese student studying overseas, compared to one who studies in China when it comes to getting a job. In fact, in China's tight graduate employment market, locally educated graduates have the advantage of local knowledge, contacts and Chinese internships, which get them a foot in the employment door. This is at odds with the UK, where employers say they value international experience.

Add this to the declining demographic in China, and we may perhaps see fewer Chinese students travelling to the UK over the coming years.

In the US, the trend favours private universities

There are lessons for the US to reflect upon, too. Of course, American universities feature massively in the top 100 institutions, but this is increasingly reliant on the ranking success of private rather than state universities (Times World University Rankings 2013 - 2018). 

With the rise of the ‘privates’ apparently stretching down into second-tier levels, state universities might do well to take notice, as they seem to be slipping behind. Given the current political landscape, however, we might expect market forces rather than state interests to dictate and dominate the debates.

What's the overseas reaction to the UK's position? 

Discussions with agencies internationally suggest that people rely upon the UK press analyses of the rankings as much as studying the tables themselves. The UK tendency for self-deprecation is not understood as a cultural trait; rather, it is believed to be a factual interpretation.

As a result, the message that the gap between the best and the second-best in the UK is getting greater will only increase demand from universities abroad to work with Russell group institutions (a group of the UK's 24 leading universities) over others, whether this is on scholarships, research links, partnerships or student mobility.

The UK must see itself as others see it

Rankings are clearly important, but it doesn't help us if we exaggerate single-year changes. After all, significant policy shifts may be slow to reflect in league table positions.

Each country will care about its own results. But UK universities want international partnerships, research collaboration, and student mobility. We must therefore look at the impact of league tables in relation to international, rather than UK policies, and consider how they make the UK look as a partner and collaborating nation.  

Be assured, international sectors will see us through media analyses and table presentations – interpreted in the light of their own higher education policies, whether we see ourselves that way or not.

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