With Tongue in Cheek: How to Game the Rankings

Rankings got you down? Do you represent a flagship educational institution in an unnamed non-Western country? Are you tired of feeling inadequate and insecure? Then you’ve come to the right place. The Rankings Rx (a limited company with headquarters in the Virgin Islands) is here to ease your pain.

For a small fee—payable in bullion, Bitcoin or bearer shares in your country’s national energy company—we can put an end to annual autumn agony. No more planning your vacation to coincide with rankings season. Instead you can lord it over competitors as your university shoots up the international league tables. The details are proprietary, of course. But what follows are just a few of our time-tested tips for success:

Open a medical school. The focus on publications and “impacts” in rankings inevitably favors those disciplines that publish frequent, short, multi-authored articles rather than long single-authored books. And nobody publishes more often than medical researchers. Wonder what pushes schools like Johns Hopkins or University College London into the top ranks? It’s the medical school.

Give your humanities faculty the old heave-ho. The arts, though an essential ingredient for civilized existence, are the enemy when it comes to rankings. Not only are poets, musicians, historians and humanists in general all potential troublemakers when it comes to faculty meetings, they are an absolute dead weight when it comes to rankings. Why else would Cal Tech—an excellent institution but no bastion of the liberal arts—consistently rank so high? So cut down the deadwood! At least they should be philosophical about it.

Become English. Of the top ten universities in the QS rankings four were in England: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and University College London, with one more—King’s College London—making it into the next ten, along with Edinburgh, scoring for Scotland. The Times Higher Education rankings put Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial in its top ten. Now these are all excellent institutions, but it’s worth noting that both QS and THE are based in Britain. Both also attach significant weight to “reputation”—and of course it makes sense that British universities would have a high reputation in Britain. (Doubtless a French poll would think more highly of the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale Supérieure—whose graduates have won 12 Nobel Prizes and 10 Fields medals.) The Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, which don’t include reputation, only let Oxford and Cambridge into the top twenty, and are exclusively American until you get to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at 20.

If you can’t become English, you can always teach in English. This may be confusing for your own citizens. But having your faculty members publish in English is also a big help in the rankings since the citation databases aren’t so good at counting publications in other languages. Switching to English might exclude some native students, but it can also help attract foreign students—especially those from countries where English is a second language and whose own national universities are either highly competitive or severely under-funded. In the trade, we call this “internationalization.”

Don’t try to Become Harvard: As the most respected brand in international education, the colossus on the Charles is often imitated by lesser institutions. This approach is understandable—hiring world-class professors who’ve already made their reputations elsewhere is one way to make the Nobel prize counters at Shanghai Jiao Tong sit up and take notice. But the strategy is almost guaranteed to fail. Harvard’s $33-billion endowment wasn’t amassed overnight, and as any poker player can tell you, it’s a bad idea to get into a bidding war with someone whose pockets are much deeper than yours.

Of course there are universities whose ancient traditions make Harvard look like a Johnny-come-lately. Al-Azhar in Cairo traces its beginnings to a madrassa founded in 988, and Al-Karouine in Fes, Morocco claims to be older still. But like Bologna in Italy and Salamanca in Spain the two venerable Arab institutions are old but not rich. As the success of both Oxford and Cambridge suggests, being rich can make all the difference.

D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for The Nation magazine, writes about education for the International New York Times.


  1. The perversion of rules to get favourable ranking willy-nilly, could ultimately back -fire and descredit an institution. Employing unwholesome practices like the ones you have mentioned is a recipe for academic disaster. Our universities and their proprietors should tread transparent trajectory that will lead durable academic glory.

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