University rankings keep higher education institutions accountable for how they use financing and academic autonomy, but they also allow prospective students to make educated decisions, forcing HEIs to become more competitive
In his introduction to 2015’s Rankings the World: Grading States as a Tool of Global Governance, Alexander Cooley writes, “Rankings and ratings have come to play an important role in assessing the provision of state services and the performance of elected officials, local governments, bureaucrats, and governing institutions.”
Rankings have become a policy instrument for international organisations, whether it is the index for corruption, academic freedom, ease of doing business, transparency, or any of the countless United Nations indices (according to one study mentioned by Cooley in his book, there were 95 such rankings in 2013). Consider, for example, indexes on climate change and desertification.
These ranking methods produce normative standards for circumstances such as “corrupt” states, which subsequently drive policy. Even when statistics are notoriously unreliable – for example, in totalitarian states or states that refuse to document key parameters such as poverty, gender equality, and employment – the rankings of international organisations become critical factors in how the world views that state and its people. Complex structures, such as the social order and cultural practises – whether the colonising Europeans were surprised by “baksheesh” or the ambiguous function of “influence” – are difficult to reduce to measurable facts.
As political scientist-anthropologist James Scott argued in his 1999 book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, standardisation, classification, and regimentation are administrative practises that seek to reduce complex practises into manageable numbers, maps, and tables. Rankings of universities are a part of a new type of global governance. Despite their best efforts to “localise,” rankings frequently function as public accounting systems that convert complicated phenomena (such as a HEI’s vision that may be entrenched in local requirements) to a bigger quantification system.