During a session at NAFSA's 2012 annual conference, Phil Baty, editor of world university rankings for Times Higher Education, outlined the basic methodology of THE's annually published rankings , which evaluate universities based on performance indicators grouped in five areas: teaching, research, citations, industry income, and international outlook. In his discussion, Baty concentrated on the rankings' attention to reputation, which is estimated by a survey of invited experts, such as faculty with publication records. The results are interesting, if also predictable. The big names of higher education dominate the top 50: Harvard, MIT, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge, for instance. It is a portfolio of the top brands in higher education, all with high name recognition.
So why should reputation and rankings matter to international educators? Brands and reputation influence an individual's decisions. They influence young people's decisions about where to study, including decisions about where to be an "international student" seeking a degree or diploma, and where to study abroad in order to enrich a program of study. In either case, individual decisions aggregate to a point that is fiscally and programmatically significant for institutions. In the case of international students, they aggregate to a point where the decisions are economically significant for nations and systems of higher education. This is true for host nations such as Australia and the United Kingdom, and for "sending nations," such as Morocco, which has a huge student and graduate diaspora.
Brand Recognition and Public Perception
Rankings, especially those based on reputation like U.S. News & World Report and THE's rankings, are attempts to compare people's perceptions of institutions. They are estimates of relative brand recognition. They express how well-regarded institutions are in the field. And there are a lot of ranking schemes—not just the highly visible ones from the mass media. There are regional and domestic rankings, as well as field-specific rankings and rankings for distance education providers.
Individuals use these estimates to make choices. They use them to decide where to invest their time and their tuition money. This is true for both study abroad students, and for international students.
In both cases, the range of choice has rapidly increased over the past 20 years, as ease of movement has increased and as universities have "internationalized" their enrollments and programs. As choices increase, so does the demand for information to make selection decisions. While there is a lot of information available about individual institutions and programs, it is not generally comparative. It does not simplify choices. It is not presented in a form that encourages systematic analysis, and it does not have the utility of a rank order chart.
As measures of brand recognition, rankings can simplify choices. To the potential consumer, the higher the rank, the better the product. Because the ranking is based on reputation, it acts as a proxy for other variables, too. It is a proxy for a safe campus. It is a proxy for high academic standards and integrity in admissions and graduation requirements. It acts as a proxy for these things, because all of them shape community perceptions—all of them are represented by the brand recognition of the institution.
The Challenge of Measuring Quality
Rankings are not a true picture of universities. They do not sum up all that makes a university great. Little weight is given to the quality of teaching. Service is seldom acknowledged. Some factors are over-emphasized. Wealth is valued, even when it is idle in endowments. Selectivity is welcome, even when it is at the expense of increased numbers of overly ambitious applicants.
But faced with choices among destinations that are too far away or too costly to visit, "students-to-be" turn to rankings to guide their decision making. Such students might not understand the imperfections of the different schemes, but the information is valuable to the consumer. Its value increases as the number of choices available through increased academic mobility expands. Choice is no longer confined to a state or province, or even a nation. Destinations for international students continue to expand as more colleges in the United States seek to increase their out-of-state enrollments for fiscal and academic reasons. Study abroad destinations are continuing to diversify as students and faculty think more globally.
Analyzing Assumptions: What Institutions Can Do
As choice multiplies and the student market diversifies to include people from different nations and cultures, institutions face new communication challenges: How to reach potential students in a cost-effective and timely manner, with little distortion in the message. A ranking scheme presents one view of a college or program. Balancing or complementing that information to ensure there is a broad view of the institution will increase the likelihood the students will make informed choices. A simple question institutional leaders can ask is, "How are we using ranking information, and what doesn't it say about us?" This can focus the school's communications efforts on the things which differentiate it from its peers. This is the critical information guiding fine decisions between schools in the same field, price point, or rank.
Academic advisers, admissions consultants, and agents can help a student make choices, but even the most experienced and most well-traveled are unable to know firsthand the relative merits of, say, the colleges of West Virginia versus Western Australia and Winnipeg. Faced with diversity and distance, they, too, resort to metrics, such as price, selectivity, diversity, and reputation. They use ranking schemes—their own, or different, publically available ones.
Understanding the basis of the different measures and how reliable and variable they are is a good idea for professionals who advise students. We should assume students or their families will at least consult them.
A good start in any conversation about rankings is to point to the basic assumptions within the different schemes. Shanghai Jiao Tong University favors research and publications in high-impact journals. University World News is an amalgam of wealth, reputation, and selectivity.Times Higher Education uses invited experts in its reputation-based ranking. The Good Universities Guide, from Australia and thus confined to a single market, is distinguished by its graduate satisfaction variable.
It is also prudent to point out there is variability within universities. Specific programs inside a highly ranked college might be relatively weak. Oxford University's Sa ï d Business School, ranked twentieth in the Financial Times' Global MBA Rankings for 2012, is not as strong as the university overall. Conversely, a lower-ranked university can house a leading program or department: Michigan State University, for example, has an excellent teacher education program, ranked more highly than the university at large.
It is also wise to suggest rankings are a tool to sift through a multiplicity of options to at least narrow the choice of destination. But when it comes to the final choice and especially the choice of program or field of study, it is a matter of "fit": Where will the student make the most progress, or have the richest experience? This is always a matter of judgment, and certainly, the chances of evaluating soundly increase when options are narrowed—this is why rankings are useful.
Alan Ruby is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. Ruby focuses on globalization's effects on universities and education around the world. Additionally, he currently serves as a NAFSA senior fellow.