I contented myself with speculation about rankings…

“The questions in my mind: what do the three main global university ranking compilers do it for? And surely just one small Mojito would be OK?”

Peter Brady, Associate Dean, International at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK, writes on the motives behind the ever-growing number of academic rankings and the temptation to sneak off for cocktails during conferences.

Sitting at a conference around the launch of the THE 100 under 50 in Miami, I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped out to the poolside and had a Mojito – or two. It wasn’t that it wasn’t riveting. But it was 30 degrees outside with blue skies and azure seas, and OK – it wasn’t riveting.

However, one look at the rather efficient young woman beside me, taking notes, photos and earnestly tweeting made me feel ashamed of such a lack of commitment.

Had I known that she was from The PIE I could have sneaked off to the pool, had the Mojito and just read the tweets – although, a slight flaw in that plan, is that I don’t know how to tweet. Nor do I know how to twerk, and in both cases the world is most probably better off.

“Had I known that the efficient young woman tweeting beside me was from The PIE I could have sneaked off to the pool”

So I contented myself with speculation about Rankings. Not the usual – ‘are they any use?’ – as the answer is obvious: no if you are lowly ranked; yes if you are highly.

No, looking at the scale of the pre-launch made me wonder what is in it for the companies compiling the rankings. After all, THE was hosting an event in the same Miami Hotel where Lady Gaga held her New Year’s party.

Thankfully THE’s own Phil Baty had refrained from donning a meat suit, but it wasn’t cheap and THE isn’t a charity.

In the cases of some rankings, it is obvious why they do it. The Chinese University Ranking had some reputational issues, as it was widely reported in the press that universities were able to pay to boost their position in the table. I don’t see a problem with that as long as it is transparent. We would just have a list of universities most willing to bribe someone – not sure what use that would be, but then again I am not sure what use many rankings are.

But assuming that this is unusual, the questions in my mind were: what do the three main global university ranking compilers do it for? And surely just one small Mojito would be OK?

For Shanghai Jiao Tong University, it appears to be straightforward. No hidden agenda. The Chinese government wanted to develop research universities and research centres of excellence. They funded nine universities for this and Shanghai Jiao Tong was one of them.

A professor from the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering decided that it would make sense to be able to benchmark progress against world class universities. And from this, the first global rankings, The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), was born.

It is not surprising, then, that it concentrates entirely on research excellence and is considered by many to be the most transparent.

“It includes measures such as international outlook – whatever that is”

The other two main rankers – I don’t mean Jonathon Ross style ‘rankers’ – rather QS and Times Higher, both have less noble motives.

Both wish to attract interest in their publications and from that generate revenue and enhance their brand.

Both have elements that are non-quantifiable and therefore questioned. QS is considered weakest as it makes extensive use of reputational surveys. Where selected professors are asked to rank universities throughout the world, how likely is it that a professor in one country would know of the overall reputation of all the universities in another?

In the case of THE, it includes measures such as international outlook – whatever that is – and teaching.

But now, despite this, both are spawning ranking-ettes. QS publishes university rankings for Asia, Latin America, and BRICS, and rankings by Faculty by Subject, and Top 50 under 50. And in front of my Mojito-starved eyes, the THE was launching the 100 under 50 for 2014. ‘Why, given the effort involved in compiling these lists, are QS and THE creating so many more?’ I mused.

“Universities are only going to mention rankings that they are doing well in”

Someone more charitable than me may suggest that it was a response to the argument that there are many different types of university and to be more useful there should be comparisons of universities which are similar.

But I don’t think so.

It is quite straightforward. Universities are only going to mention rankings that they are doing well in. So if there are a significant group of Universities who do not do as well in the rankings (such as those under 50), there is not going to be any engagement by them with QS or THE – and thence no revenue.

So the answer was obvious – make a new ranking. At one stroke you have 100 universities that can say they are in the top 100 in the world. All of whom will cite the company that produced the rankings in publications and websites giving free advertising.

And just think about how easy it is to sell space on the website/newspaper/magazine which hosts the list which cites your university as world class!

And as I listened, Phil Baty pointed out that THE would strongly resist the urge to change the age from 50 years. It hit me like the first slurp of cold Mojito in the sunlight – pure genius. Unlike the standard rankings, where year on year there is not a huge amount of movement, and certainly few newcomers, this ranking will be refreshed constantly as universities – like myself – find themselves on the wrong side of the hill that is 50 years old and excluded from the club.

Twelve out of the fourteen UK universities cited in THE’s 2014 list will be 50 in the next few years. So they will drop out if the rankings completely, to have their place taken by completely different universities – all of whom will want to spend money to shout to the world that they are best.

And that is just the UK universities.

So given this, it is unlikely that these companies will stop there. There are so many universities who still haven’t made a top 100 in anything yet – think of the money to be made by the publishers if each and every university could get its place in the sunlight!

So the question I pose to you, dear readers, is what do you think the next world university rankings will be? My suggestion is Top 100 Universities for Management Organisation Janitors Interaction and Theoretical Operations – not because it makes sense but purely for the acronym.

And as for my Mojito, unfortunately I never got it, as the day became more interesting. We began to discuss how the THE could improve the metrics they use in the rankings to make them more useful and I began to muse that having a commercial motivation isn’t always wrong.