University rankings in the form of "league tables" have become increasingly popular in recent years. Not only have the general public and the media enthusiastically embraced them, these rankings have become popular among the universities themselves, at least as long as they think their ranking position is worth publishing.
Within only a few years, rankings have become an unavoidable part of academic life, for better or worse. They promise a number of things to different groups. They promise transparency within the university sector, an important but also costly area of modern societies. Students and their parents, junior faculty and scientists, participants of continuous and executive education programmes as well as sponsors and politicians are all looking for guidance in evaluating the quality of different universities.
Rankings thereby create a public platform for competition between universities, which did not exist previously. And the universities themselves have welcomed rankings as a marketing tool to communicate their performance and build their international reputation. Rankings in the form of league tables, however, suggest that assessing a university’s educational and scientific performance is as easy as assessing a football league. These rankings have been remarkably influential despite the fact that things are not so simple and that there is still contention over the methodologies used in the various ranking lists.
Two global ranking lists have attracted much public attention recently: the Shanghai ranking of world class universities, published by the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai since 2003 (Shanghai ranking list), and the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking of world universities, published since 2004 (THES ranking list). Ranking lists, however, have been around for a long time. Not yet global in their ambitions, these ranking lists have remained confined to specific activities of universities and to individual nations. While the quality of graduate programmes in the USA has been evaluated through faculty surveys since the 1920s, media rankings started in 1983 when US News and World Report began publishing "America's Best Colleges Ranking". The purpose has been to help students and their parents make their decisions concerning a fitting place for college education.
Nowadays, the rankings field has become very large and diverse, more recently also global in its ambitions. The methodologies used to define and measure quality are as varied as they are controversial. Undoubtedly, there are considerable risks associated with allowing a powerful new tool like ranking lists to spread and gain influence when it is still unclear what exactly they measure and what impact they will have on the university system.