There can be no question about it, university rankings evoke emotions. Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, often starts his presentation quoting a high-ranking Chinese official who once called him the “education secretary of the world”. Modesty aside, this illustrates how seriously academic rankings are taken.
The appearance of global rankings a decade or so ago has put university rankings in the spotlight. Some have started to see in the global rankings not so much an expression of competition between universities as yet another form of rivalry between nations.
Presidents and kings in France, Saudi Arabia, Russia and a number of other countries have suddenly expressed readiness to spend billions to help universities in their countries advance up the rankings.
The global rush to outdo others in the world-class university business has overshadowed the very, if not the most, important and meaningful type of rankings – national university rankings. They may have been criticised now and again, but national rankings have been recognised and appreciated for some time.
The Washington Post, analysing the phenomenon of the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings produced by Bob Morse since 1983, wrote: "Bob Morse is a wonk, a number-cruncher who works in a messy office at a struggling publishing company in Georgetown. He’s also one of the most powerful wonks in the country, wielding the kind of power that elicits enmity and causes angst."
He “has endured for two decades as chief arbiter of higher education’s elite. No one can stake a credible claim to academic aristocracy without a berth on the first page of a US News list. He is to colleges what Robert Parker is to wine."
And: "The annual release of the rankings is a marquee event in higher education."