The race for ratings: more pain, no gain
International education sometimes (or almost always) resembles Shakespearean plays: conflicts, dramas and battles are constantly intertwined with assurances of eternal friendship, search for the best and faith in a bright future. Every time I look at what is happening in the global educational community, at new trends in it, I wonder: will we follow this trend or not? How long? Or, like Shakespeare wrote: to be or not to be?

International education sometimes (or almost always) resembles Shakespearean plays: conflicts, dramas and battles are constantly intertwined with assurances of eternal friendship, search for the best and hope for a bright future. Every time we look at what is happening in the global educational community, at new trends in it, we wonder: will we follow this trend or not? How long? Or, like Shakespeare wrote: to be or not to be?

Increasingly, such rhetorical question is being asked in terms of the rating race. The debates on this idea last for more than a decade.

The appearance of ratings in the educational environment is logical: universities want to demonstrate their superiority, but it is quite difficult to understand on one's own which of the good universities is the best. And at this moment the ratings come to the fore with their dry statistics and indicators. Being in the top of the rankings becomes prestigious, and universities begin to make serious efforts to achieve the results necessary to get into the coveted list.

Thus, rating agencies at some point begin to actually manage universities, dictating their own rules and priorities, regardless of the opinions of the university management. Often, the university's position in the ranking is not an objective measure of the quality of education, and the desire to increase numerical indicators often turns into a race of attrition — both financial (success in the rankings is expensive, despite the fact that participation is free), and moral. Much has already been said about the negative consequences of the pursuit of unrealistic publication indicators which often leads to overbooking of articles and affiliations, the growth of predatory journals, an increase in the number of "low-quality" articles, and, ultimately, a shift in focus from the teaching function. This critical view is shared by the world's leading experts in the field of higher education, such as Philip Altbach,

Professor, founder of Boston College Center for International Higher Education, and Ellen Hazelkorn, Policy Advisor to the Higher Education Authority (Ireland), Emeritus Professor and Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU), Dublin Institute of Technology. In a joint article titled "The race for ratings in the period of the massification of higher education: forget about them!" they write the following: "Universities around the world are too fixated on their status in national or global rankings […] We argue that it's time to stop. The leading incentives for development were prestige and reputation, rather than improving the quality or improving student learning outcomes, which leads to further social stratification and reputational distinctions. Many agree that the indicators used in the ratings and the weights applied to them make sense, but there is no international research to support this."

Often, the "rating race" captures entire countries besides individual niversities. Under the auspices of governments, special programs are being created to increase the number of local universities in international rankings. The Russian "Project 5-100", the German "Exzellenzinitiative", the French "Campus France" are some of the many examples of such initiatives. Let us look at the current state of the rankings outside of Europe, namely in Australia and China.

In 2014, Australia entered the "global ranking race". The goal was simple: at least one Australian university had to enter the top 20 and as many universities as possible had to enter the top 100.

But after six years, the view of the ratings has changed, it has become more critical. And now, during the pandemic, the calls to end this "race" are growing louder in the educational community of the country. Dr Gwilym Croucher, an analyst at University of Melbourne, comments on the situation: "Initially, Australian universities perceived ratings as a way to demonstrate their superiority, but now the popularity of ratings is obviously tied to the finances coming from international educational markets." According to Croucher, in the context of the pandemic there is a redistribution of student flows not in favor of Australia, so this obsession with ratings is becoming a thing of the past. The vice chancellor of the Australian National University, Brian Schmidt, in turn, added that the longterm pursuit of high ratings has created a skew in scientific research. Since the research in applied natural sciences, as a rule, makes the greatest contribution to the ratings' indicators, funding and support for the theoretical sciences of the humanities have significantly decreased in universities.

Let's look further north, to China, where the "Double First Class" project which includes 42 universities has been implemented since 2017. The project resembles the aforementioned "5-100": its participants are required to develop indicators that are significant to the world university rankings.

Universities that demonstrate high results in the rankings receive significant additional funding from the state.

Such situation and competition for funding have already led to a number of negative consequences:

  • the gap between well-funded universities in the developed eastern provinces and those in the less wealthy central and western regions has widened. Despite the fact that all project participants are classified as "first-class", the Eastern universities are often the ones to have the highest budget and the best conditions for developing key international metrics;
  • elite universities attract talented scientists from other universities, which leads to a brain drain from the west to the east of the country;
  • the variety of courses offered has decreased. University leaders had to close "weak" programs that do not provide high citation rates: one of the universities participating in the project had to close its pedagogical faculty in order to balance citation rates and to be more likely to attract public funding. Already 77% of the programs offered at participating universities are STEM-related;
  • development of the market for buying "ready-made knowledge" from "hadow scientists": universities hire talented graduate students and young scientists who already have successful publications in English-language journals on short-term contracts, thus increasing the university's citation rates. Such employees are called "shadow empoyees" because they often do not even appear on campus, and their work contracts are only nominal.

It goes without saying that the high position of the university in the international rankings is a reason for joy and pride, and the interest in the rankings will not go away. But will this factor continue to occupy such a priority place in educational strategies? And is it worth paying that much attention to your position in the list, if students, educators and the quality of education suffer in the process? We don't know if Shakespeare would have been able to answer these questions, but international education experts will have to answer them soon.

Larisa Taradina is the Director for International Education Development and Cooperation of Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. She has been working in the field of international education for more than 15 years. Among other institutions, her experience includes working in National Research University Higher School of Economics and the Russian Academic Excellence Project. She is the author of professional development programs for employees of international offices; these programs were implemented under the agenda of the Academic Excellence Project. Larisa Taradina conducts researches in the field of internationalization of higher education and is the chief editor of Telegram channel @eduviewrus dedicated to international education relevant issues.