Global geographies of higher education: The perspective of world university rankings

Over the past decade, annually published world university rankings have captured the attention of university managers, policy makers, employers, academics and the wider public. Many national governments have implemented neoliberal reforms in higher education and increased the autonomy of their universities to enhance international competitiveness. Several universities have adjusted their strategic plans to climb up the ranks, while fee-paying international students often consult such league tables as a guide of where they can expect to receive ‘value for money’.

Despite the powerful impact of world university rankings on individual decision-making, institutional strategies and government policies and a range of critical voices that question their methodology and value, little is known how world university rankings represent global higher education to the wider public and to what extent this varies between different ranking schemes. Which types of universities are represented in such rankings and where are these institutions located? To what extent do different rankings account for similar global clusters of highly ranked universities? And which geographies of global higher education do individual ranking criteria produce?

Our Geoforum article, which is now Open Access, responds to these key questions by providing a geographical, comparative and disaggregating perspective on two of the most widely discussed world university rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University since 2003 (Shanghai ranking), and the World University Ranking as compiled by QS Quacquarelli Symonds Limited from 2004 to 2009. Drawing on these examples, the analysis explains why university rankings are always partial representations of global higher education and illustrates how the Shanghai and QS rankings, while emphasizing the resource-intensive Anglophone technosciences, also highlight very different aspects of the contemporary knowledge-based economy.

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