Recently, the Times Higher Education published its second ranking Top 100 universities for tackling gender equality, which is part of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings measuring universities’ success in delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This is indisputably an interesting achievement, which opens several questions: Can gender equality rankings become a useful instrument for promoting gender equality in the higher education sector? And if yes, under what conditions? What are possible pros and cons?
Measuring universities’ performance
In recent decades, there has been a significant shift to measuring universities’ performance. This phenomenon can be seen as part of a broader public and political pressure for greater accountability and transparency. University rankings that have proliferated since the early 2000s are one of its manifestations (Hazelkorn, Loukkola, Zhang 2014). Rankings have become a global practice, redefining science accountability in terms of quantitative measures (Sauder, Espeland 2009). The overall assumption informing these practices is that performance indicators and the related competitition will seamlessly transform into increased efficiency and performance (Shore 2008). The landscape of existing university rankings is diverse – from global university rankings (QS World University Rankings, CWTS Leiden Ranking, THE World University Ranking, Academic Ranking of World Universities), often differentiated also by subject, to regional and national university rankings. Reaching a position in the rankings is a matter of prestige. Rankings attract a great deal of attention from diverse groups – governments, institutional leaders, international students and the academic community as a whole. As the survey of the European University Association (2014) showed, universities closely monitor their position in the rankings and use them in a variety of ways, especially for benchmarking purposes, to inform institutional strategy or for marketing and publicity (Hazelkorn, Loukkola, Zhang 2014).
An obvious reason for a high level of popularity of rankings is their simplicity. Nevertheless, the reverse side is that they often transform a complex reality of different university settings into a single digit. Although they may give the impression that they capture the quality of institutions, they often cover just some of the missions that higher education institutions have. Especially the global rankings are mainly based on research indicators, while teaching quality and universities’ third mission remain uncovered. They largely use bibliometric indicators, which favour natural sciences and medicine and their publication and citation cultures. Due to their utilization of citation databases (such as Thomson Reuters‘ Web of Sciences and Elsevier’s Scopus), the global rankings were also reported to favour universities from English-speaking countries (Rauhvargers 2011).
While the portfolio of indicators has expanded in some cases, the rankings and their narrow notion of quality may have, as has been reported, several negative impacts. To improve their position in the rankings, universities tend to focus their efforts specifically on the areas and outputs measured by ranking indicators, less attention is paid to other activities and missions. This logic is further reinforced by governments and policy makers having a stake in national universities being in the visible ranking positions. As a result, the whole higher education sector is being reshaped. Research universities meeting the standards used by the rankings become a desirable model for all higher education institutions, the diversity of institutions’ profiles and their different missions and goals are much less considered (Rauhvargers 2011).
Gender equality rankings
If we now return to the ranking Top 100 universities for tackling gender equality and other possible “gender rankings” that may follow in the future, what are their benefits and risks? And in what ways does the situation differ from general university rankings? The ranking covers the following indicators: greatest weight is attributed to research, using the bibliometric data. The authors looked not only at the proportion of publications authored by women (in Elsevier’s Scopus), but included also the proportion of papers on gender equality in the top 10 percent of journals (as defined by Citescore) and the number of publications on gender equality. Other indicators focus on policies on gender equality (e.g. policy on non-discrimination against women and transgender people, maternity and paternity policies, childcare facilities, mentoring schemes), proportion of senior female academics, student access measures, the proportion of first-generation female students and women receiving degrees. While this ranking carries some problems already mentioned in connection with general rankings, especially its concentration on easily measurable characteristics, it is, on the other hand, quite complex and covers many important areas. It also seems to be well applicable for different kinds of universities, not skewed towards any particular model.
Whether we subscribe to the “ranking technology” or not, we can probably expect that other gender equality rankings will be established in the coming years. As Hazelkorn, Loukkola and Zhang (2014: 13) state: “the cross-national comparisons are an inevitable by-product of globalisation and will intensify in the future”. The presented ranking brings a certain hope that gender equality rankings as such may become a positive force speeding up universities’ efforts in promoting gender equality and stimulating their attention to gender equality issues. However, as the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions (2006) importantly point out, the huge impact of rankings requires considerable responsibility from their authors, careful choice of indicators, transparency of the used methodology and the high quality of contributed data. This must not become a box ticking exercise. Moreover, if gender equality rankings are to bring any positive change, their focus should not be on the world’s top universities only. As many universities as possible should be included and more regional scale of rankings considered, which would motivate even less active institutions to launch changes and enable them to monitor their gradual progress. Still, to avoid a narrow concentration of efforts on the areas measured by the indicators, gender equality rankings have to be embedded in a spectrum of other platforms dealing with gender inequality in its complexity and providing practical guidance and theoretical knowledge (gender equality plans, gender trainings etc.). If we can avoid reductionism and meet at least some of the above mentioned goals, we can give the rankings – as one of multiple instruments for promoting gender equality – a chance.
Impact Rankings 2020. Times Higher Education. Available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/rankings/impact/2020/overall#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/undefined>.
International Ranking Expert Group. 2006. Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions. Available at: <https://ireg-observatory.org/en/about-us/>.
Hazelkorn, E., T. Loukkola, T. Zhang. 2014. Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes: Impact or Illusion? Brussels: European University Association.
Rauhvagers, A. 2011. Global University Rankings and Their Impact. Brussels: European University Association.
Sauder, M., W. N. Espeland. 2009. “The Discipline of Rankings: Tight Coupling and Organizational Change.” American Sociological Review 74: 63–82.
Shore, C. 2008. “Audit Culture and Illiberal Governance: Universities and the politics of accountability.” Anthropological Theory 8: 278-298.
Top universities for tackling gender equality. Times Higher Education (22 April 2020). Available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/best-universities/top-universities-tackling-gender-equality>.
THE Impact Rankings 2020 by SDG: Gender equality (SDG 5) methodology. Times Higher Education (17 April 2020). Available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/impact-rankings-2020-sdg-gender-equality-sdg-5-methodology>.