I have just returned from the 2008 International Symposium: Rankings in Higher Education on the Global and National Stages organized by the Higher Education and Accreditation Council of Taiwan held in Taipei, Taiwan. There were participants from Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, Holland, and Malaysia.
I spoke on the U.S. News's America's Best Colleges rankings and what impact those rankings have had in the U.S. and what some of the implications of our ranking experience were for universities in Taiwan and that nation's possible college rankings.
The Taiwan conference provided a forum to discuss the pitfalls and challenges that are resulting from the worldwide spread of university rankings. These presentations enabled countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Indian, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, which are considering setting up some kind of ranking system, to be able to understand the methodology problems and limitations of the rankings.
One of my biggest thrills from the conference is the realization of how rapidly the study and creation of academic rankings is becoming a global phenomenon. Rankings for prospective students and parents like our America's Best Colleges rankings or Germany's Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) program specific rankings are rapidly spreading around world.
It was also clear from the symposium that in some cases, however, these rankings are being created and done for public policy reasons (not primarily as consumer guides for prospective students) and are meant to help government officials in those countries raise the level of academic quality at their universities and determine higher education funding. Some participants at the conference pointed out that it may not be the best use of academic rankings to be a tool to choose winners and losers among universities for the purpose of allocating funds. They felt that, for funding purposes, institutions should be judged on how well they are achieving their mission of educating students.
In the end, these international gatherings serve a very positive purpose because they help those considering establishing rankings better understand the problems and limitations. These conferences also enable those who are currently doing rankings to talk with others in their field to produce better and more reliable rankings for their own audiences.