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HEDx Podcast: A university is more than its rank

In an era where university rankings dominate higher education discussions and marketing messages, more critics and leaders are questioning the validity of their influence and power. These efforts have the potential to reshape the landscape of higher education, ultimately making it more equitable and meaningful for students and institutions alike.

Each of our journeys into the realm of university rankings began with a shared belief in the need for a rethink. The methods used by league tables have, as we have published in Significance, "no legs to stand on".

The development of newer research assessment reform efforts, such as the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and the Coalition on Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA), provides the perfect opportunity to address this issue. Taking a critical statistical approach allows us to challenge the rankings from a quantitative and scientific perspective.

Understanding the external policy drivers facing global university executives – and gaining insight into the thoughts, strategies and views of their leaders – can help identify the barriers to change and inform a way forward.

Collaboration across these areas of expertise is born out of a shared passion to question the role that rankings play in students' decision-making processes and universities' behaviours, given their clear methodological limitations.

We have delved deeply into the subject, including in publications and in a podcast episode that asked, "Do university rankings really tell us anything?". This has occurred in parallel with earlier episodes of the HEDx podcast and writings from it that pose the question “What if there were no university rankings?”.

The short answer is that rankings do not provide a meaningful assessment of an institution's quality, or its suitability for prospective students, and if we didn't have them we would have to develop better and more robust approaches to assessing institutional quality, leadership and culture.

Our critiques of existing ranking agencies have extended to offering “free and friendly" advice to those who do the ranking. We advocate for a more inclusive approach that visualises all world universities, abandoning flagship overarching rankings, and including qualitative data alongside quantitative metrics. Ideally these assessments won’t take the form of ‘rankings’ at all, but rather profiles that surface and contextualise the relative strengths of all institutions.

The International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) initiative More Than Our Rank (MTOR) aims to provide just such a platform for universities to share their stories beyond rankings. This initiative is a welcome alternative in a world where reductive league tables omit the rich and diverse narratives of universities.

As we seek to achieve sustainable research funding, there is criticism of the way we currently do so in Australia; through surpluses generated by international student fees. This acknowledges the real challenges that universities face when trying to balance their ideals with their financial needs.

This is demonstrated by the Queensland University of Technology's dual role in being the first Australian university to participate in MTOR while also continuing to participate in and seek marketing advantage from rankings.

This demonstrates the operational realities of needing to both ‘play’ and ‘change’ the rankings game. However, we might want to seek better evidence that rankings do drive international student university choice before continuing to use this as an excuse for maintaining our involvement in rankings.

This debate isn't limited to Australia. In the Netherlands, the University of Utrecht has recently withdrawn from global rankings, while an increasing number of US universities are opting out of the US News and World Report subject rankings on the grounds that they embed inequities. A number of significant reports from the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, the European University Association, and other Dutch Universities, have all argued for a change in the way our sector engages with rankings.

Despite these positive developments, the recent announcement of a new ranking by the Australian Financial Review has raised eyebrows. This new ranking, developed by a former vice-chancellor and a professorial statistician for the Australian National University, adds another layer of complexity to the rankings conundrum for Australian institutions while adding nothing of any quality or substance to the assessment of our universities’ strengths.

So, where are we heading with all of this, and what advice do we have for university leaders and policymakers?

The answer is clear: it's time to rethink our engagement with university rankings. University leaders can no longer lay claim to intellectual credibility while allowing intellectually incredulous assessments to drive their institutional strategies. Neither can they pay lip service to caring about equity, diversity, and inclusion, whilst uncritically supporting inequitable ranking methodologies.

Disengaging with rankings altogether may not be an option for institutions reliant on international recruitment. We propose that those who are in this bind, should educate those who use the rankings to make decisions about their limitations, and at the same time promote how they are engaging responsibly with the rankings.

Leaders should prioritize their institution's unique identity and mission over chasing arbitrary numbers. Policymakers, particularly those tasked with creating a more equitable higher education system, should recognize the potential harm rankings can cause.

We would call for the sector to reimagine new forms of university assessment that are independent, robust, and reliable. The power to redefine the future of higher education lies with those who recognise that rankings should not drive decisions; rather, they should be just a reflection of a university's character and impact.

It's past high time to break free from rankings that have hindered the progress of higher education. Let's celebrate diversity, innovation, and a commitment to students. After all, as Minister for Education Jason Clare said at the launch of the THE World University Rankings in Sydney recently, "Great universities are not just about rankings, they are about students. They are not a place of privilege; they are a place of opportunity."

It's a message that can guide changing the future of higher education for good.

Adrian Barnett works is a professor at the School of Public Health & Social Work at Queensland University of Technology.
Elizabeth Gadd is head of Research Culture & Assessment at Loughborough University in England.

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