09 May 2016

The eighth conference of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence in Lisbon had as its theme “University Rankings and International Academic Relations: A Bridging Tool or a Hindrance?”. The subtitle could well have been “A Necessary Evil”.

The growing significance of rankings was outlined by the speakers at the earlier sessions. Simon Marginson of the Institute of Education at University College London referred to them as a necessary evil. He also spoke of two different circles of ranking: a virtuous circle in which ranking outcome led to strategy and effort which led to improved performance which in turn led to ranking outcomes and an unvirtuous circle in which ranking outcomes improved reputation which improved ranking outcomes but with no noticeable change in performance or quality.

Many of the presenters were critical of various aspects of the global rankings. Marco Antonio Zago of the University of Sao Paulo noted that the oldest global rankings, the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, were irrelevant to 97 per recent of the world’s universities and that the Third Mission of universities, including such things as knowledge transfer, links with society and public policies, was ignored by conventional rankings.

Hans de Wit, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, argued that current global rankings measured only a limited part of the process of internationalization. Of the three pillars of internationalization, mobility, curriculum and partnerships, rankings focus on only the first of these.

Markus Laitinen of the University of Helsinki and the European Association for International Education noted that many rankings including Times Higher Education, QS, the US News Best Global Universities, U-Multirank and the Russian Round University Ranking, employed internationalization indicators but took a narrow and mechanistic approach and were forced to rely on a limited and misleading range of data.

A presentation by Gero Federkeil and Solveig Gleser from U-Multirank suggested that a more elaborate approach was needed to capture international orientation and proposed “specific indicators on international aspects of teaching, research & networks as well as inclusion of students ‘perspective”.

A final keynote speech by Jamil Salmi noted that internationalization, promoted by the recruitment of foreign researchers, return of the diaspora, academic mobility, joint degree programs and international research, had played an important role in various excellent initiatives that had contributed to improvements in global rankings.

In general, the sense of the conference was that international rankings were not going to go away, that they would continue to have a significant role in the assessment of internationalization and that ranking experts and universities need to engage with the ranking organisations.

The conference was held at the New University of Lisbon 4-6 May 2016 and was attended by 164 delegates with a strong representation from Latin America, including Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Columbia and Brazil, and Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Japan, and Korea.


IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence

Photo: B. Wieckowski (IREG) | Communications Office (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa)

IREG Initiatives

With the fast development of science and technology, as well as the internationalization of scientific activities, international academic awards have been more and more popular and influential. Numerous international academic awards have been established to provide individuals with incentives and motivation for new academic work and to reward past excellent academic accomplishments.


The purpose of the IREG Ranking Audit, conducted by independent experts, is to verify and attest that ranking under review is done professionally, with a transparent methodology, observes good practices and responds to a need for relevant information of various stakeholders, in particular students, higher education institutions, employers and policy makers.


National and international academic rankings play ever increasing role as a barometer of quality of higher education institutions. The purpose of "IREG Inventory of National Rankings" is to collect and make available on the IREG Observatory website information on the current state and scope of this important group of rankings.


The purpose of the IREG Guidelines for Stakeholders of Academic Rankings is to provide recommendations for appropriate interpretations, uses and applications of rankings by potential interested parties, including students and parents, institutions of higher education, policymakers, quality assurance and funding organizations, employers and the media. Specific recommendations have been formulated for each group of stakeholders.


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