Where did university rankings come from, anyway?

Today we accept university rankings as business as usual, but the practice is newer than you might think.

Today we accept higher education rankings as a global phenomenon: institutions know they’re coming, some might “massage” their data, ranking drops are fretted over, ranking rises crowed from the rooftops—and then the familiar pattern repeats for the next cycle.

We expect much to be made of the QS World Ranking of Universities, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. There are numerous blogs and pages that will tell you what the strengths and weaknesses of each of these rankings are, which is important if you’re going to use them to inform policy or personal choice.

But thinking about this topic does lead one to wonder about something broader. When, exactly, did we start ranking universities like this? How did it develop into a global phenomenon?

Western universities, in the form that we recognise them, are more or less a medieval invention. But, for resourcing and logistical reasons, it seems superficially unlikely that rankings would have become an established practice at the same time.

This common-sense hunch holds up: university rankings are much, much newer than universities themselves. In fact, they’re a product of the latter half of the 20th century. In context, it’s not surprising that this practice took off after higher education became more accessible to more students, and after more professions began to require university degrees for admittance.

In the earlier half of the 20th century, a movement to standardise, classify and hold accountable educational institutions gained momentum in the USA—not strictly a direct ranking—but it wasn’t until 1970 that the National Science Foundation commissioned the American Council on Education to create rankings of graduate departments. It is from this publication that the practice of comparative university rankings emerged. In the 1970s and 80s, it became more common to use rankings to compare universities with one another to reflect the quality of education providers.

There’s plenty of criticism of university rankings. The idea that organisations can achieve ‘excellence’ only through perpetual competition with other institutions is not universally accepted, and some commentators regard them as, at best, a distraction from the actual work of universities.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the comparative ranking of these educational offerings fills an information deficit to meet the needs of our data-hungry modern society.

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