Here's a great new article by my Kauffman colleague and friend, Ben Wildavsky:
The [University of Malaya]'s moment of glory was fleeting—one year long, to be exact. When the next international ranking came out, UM had plummeted, from eighty-ninth to 169th. In reality, universities don’t change that much from year to year. And indeed, UM’s drop turned out to be caused by a decline in a questionable measure of its reputation, plus the discovery and correction of an error the university itself had made. After the drop, UM was pilloried in the Malaysian press, and widespread calls for a royal commission of inquiry into the unfortunate episode followed. Within a few months, the vice chancellor, who had been vilified in the media, was effectively fired when he was not reappointed to a new term.
The instrument of Yaacob’s rise and fall was a periodical called the Times Higher Education Supplement, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (until a 2005 ownership change). For the past five years the newspaper has offered a ranking of universities around the world in a more-or-less open effort to duplicate internationally what U.S. News & World Report has done in the American higher education market. The impetus for the rankings was straightforward: “Particularly where research is concerned,” John O’Leary, the creator of the Times Higher rankings and the publication’s former editor, explained in an essay accompanying a recent installment, “Oxford and Cambridge are as likely to compare themselves with Harvard and Princeton as with other UK [institutions].” Universities are operating “at a time of unprecedented international mobility both by students and by academics”; furthermore, “governments all around the world have expressed an ambition to have at least one university among the international elite.”
Although Times Higher Education, as the publication is now called, wasn’t the first effort at producing international rankings, it has become the most controversial; its assessment of the global university pecking order is widely read not only among university administrators and students, but among government officials and politicians keen to assess their place in a world where educational achievement is a proxy for power. And for understandable reasons. Like most other economic sectors, higher education is fast becoming a global enterprise. Students and professors hopscotch from nation to nation more than ever. Western universities set up branch campuses in Asia and the Middle East, catering to huge demand for the best diplomas. In places like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, France, and Germany, a fierce race is in progress to create world-class research universities. Times Higher is now one of the chief de facto arbiters of who’s winning the knowledge industry competition.