How will the COVID-19 crisis affect the global rankings?

Richard Holmes The first half of 2020 has been dramatic for higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down schools and universities across the world and its impact will continue for years to come.

As they cautiously reopen, universities will find themselves in a world rather different from the one they knew at the beginning of the year. Prediction is always risky, but some trends are likely to emerge and to intensify.

The most obvious is that international student mobility will be reduced. Even if there is a revival in 2021 or 2022, it will almost certainly be limited and patchy. Mainland Chinese students, in particular, are unlikely to return to Western universities in significant numbers, even if there is an uptick of Hong Kong students moving to the West.

There will probably be a shift to new destination countries. Those students who continue to move abroad will head to places that have done better in controlling the pandemic such as Germany, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand.

They will stay away from the United Kingdom and the United States, especially if governments impose discriminatory fees and visa regulations and if the current unrest continues and spreads to the universities as they reopen.

A lot of local students will be staying away as well. Many will see little point in going deep into debt for online or blended programmes that lead nowhere. Others will be reluctant to pay or borrow money without getting the full campus experience.

Financial problems

This is going to cause huge financial problems. Universities cannot live without students, at least not without the loans and grants that come with them. Perhaps governments will come up with generous bailouts, but universities are not necessarily the most deserving institutions. There are going to be closures, mergers, redundancies, cuts and austerity and there will be sustained conflict over who suffers the most. None of this will attract students from anywhere.

It is also likely that the overall academic ability of students will fall. Online learning does not work for everyone and many of the students entering this year and next are going to be seriously unprepared. This will be exacerbated by the decline of standardised testing in the US and lowered admission standards in Europe.

As universities slash budgets, expensive research projects will be cut. The quality and quantity of research throughout the West will start or continue to deteriorate and the absence of international graduate students will make things worse.

The virus and the rankings

All of this could lead to fluctuations in scores and ranks in some of the global rankings. Universities in the UK, North America and Australia that have relied on international students for income and status may well see their scores falling in the Round University Rankings (RUR) and in the Times Higher Education (THE) and QS world university rankings.

This will be accompanied by a smaller fall in the international faculty indicators used in those rankings and their regional and specialist offshoots.

Volatility will not stop there. If state and corporate largesse dries up, that will affect the RUR and THE rankings, both of which have income indicators. As the number of talented researchers and funding declines in the West, there will be an acceleration of the convergence of Western and Asian universities in global rankings.

No immediate change

That, it must be stressed, is not going to happen this year or even next year. Some rankings use institutional data which has been collected two or three years previously or they analyse bibliometric data over a four, five or even, in the case of the National Taiwan University Ranking, 11 years.

THE averages survey responses over two years and QS over five years. QS also has several other mechanisms that dampen or cap the impact of sudden fluctuations from year to year.

But over the next few years, if present trends continue and if ranking methodology remains unchanged, we shall see some well-known Western universities struggle to maintain their places in the rankings.

Declining international enrolment, falling income, especially from governments, worsening faculty-student ratios, limited international and industrial collaboration, fewer publications of quality and fewer citations will eventually take their toll. Eventually, even reputation among researchers and employers will start to erode.

Meanwhile, in East Asia and maybe a few places in Southeast, South and West Asia and Eastern Europe, economic recovery, relative political stability and rigorous admissions, recruitment and promotion policies will produce a steady growth of research and innovation.

The future of ranking

One ranking organisation has already reacted to the virus crisis. Until April of this year, THE had been talking about reforming the methodology of its World University Rankings, especially the citations indicator which has seriously compromised its credibility, at least among those who read beyond THE’s headlines. Now the changes will be postponed until the 2022-23 rankings. THE is considering conducting a consultation process via Zoom.

Whatever happens to the world rankings, THE will likely continue its policy of promoting national rankings, such as those that purport to assess teaching and learning in Europe, the US and Japan, and its global impact rankings. We can expect other rankers to do the same and also to start looking at existing rankings of online courses, mainly in business schools, and at the possibility of incorporating their techniques into their global tables.

As universities seek to redefine themselves or change their priorities, rankings will follow suit, although perhaps not so quickly. It is probable that eventually there will be a shift from rankings that emphasise research, resources, international orientation and reputation to those that attempt to measure inclusiveness, environmental impact, social issues or the student experience.

It is also a fairly safe bet that there will be fewer prestigious summits and more Zoom meetings.

Richard Holmes is editor of the University Ranking Watch blog.

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