Richard Holmes University Ranking Watch, UK

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Global university rankings have always been associated with international political and economic conflicts. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic there were signs that scientific and academic globalism was breaking down. The pandemic, the various measures taken to combat it, and military and ideological conflicts have led to the breakdown of international academic cooperation, the formation of very different research complexes, and the development of new regional ranking systems.


Global university rankings have always been associated with international political and economic conflicts. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic there were signs that scientific and academic globalism was breaking down. The pandemic, the various measures taken to combat it, and military and ideological conflicts have led to the breakdown of international academic cooperation, the formation of very different research complexes, and the development of new regional ranking systems.


In May 2021, I presented a paper on Crisis, Conflict and Global Rankings at an online conference sponsored by Eötvös Loránd University. This conference had originally been scheduled for 2020 but, like nearly all academic meetings and events, had been postponed because of the advancing pandemic.

The paper suggested that the pandemic had accelerated trends which were already apparent in the world of higher education and scientific research, including the erosion of educational globalism, the decline of student and faculty mobility, although not apparently of online research collaboration, and the fragmentation of the rankings ecosystem.

Since then, we have seen the intensification and slow recession of the pandemic and a slew of draconian measures that have had a profound impact on all levels of education, a complex energy and economic crisis, growing tensions between China and the West, and the outbreak of the Russo - Ukraine war, which may become much more serious. All of these have had significant consequences for science and higher education, including global rankings.

The decline of globalism

Even before 2020 there were signs of cracks in the emergent global order. China was moving away from a market economy and reasserting the status of Marxism in Chinese society and government. Russia was becoming disenchanted with Western liberalism, and India was coming under the influence of Hindutva, an overtly religious variant of Indian nationalism.

These trends had an impact on higher education and the global ranking industry. A few years ago, Russia had announced the 5 TOP 100 project (Vorotnikov, 2018), an attempt to get five Russian universities into the top 100 of the big four global rankings, QS, Times Higher Education (THE), the Shanghai Rankings, and US News. It was not very successful and eventually Russia became disillusioned and the project fizzled out.

China has been especially attracted to global university rankings. The Shanghai rankings were the first, and they were specifically designed to show what China needed to do to catch up with the West scientifically (Charroin, 2015). Chinese universities had participated enthusiastically in the THE rankings and cooperated with THE and other Western ranking agencies. At one point, a Chinese official had proclaimed that Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at THE, was the world's education secretary. An example of the convergence of interest was the Asian Universities Summit in 2016 where the University of Tokyo lost its place as best Asian university and was overtaken by two Chinese, two Singaporean, and two Hong Kong universities, a result of methodological tweaking (Holmes, 2016).

Until recently China was sending large numbers of students abroad, mainly in STEM subjects. Indeed, some English-speaking universities have become financially dependent on Chinese students. In July 2020 there were 120,000 Chinese students in Britain alone with several universities deriving a substantial slice of their income from them (Adams, 2020). But even before the onset of the pandemic itseemed that the outflow of Chinese students had peaked or was about to.

There were signs that China was rethinking its relationship with Western academia. In 2020 the government declared an end to “SCI worship” by putting less emphasis on publications in international journals and more on high quality Chinese publications, and replacing citation counts with peer review for research assessment (Li, 2020).

The pandemic

The pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns and restrictions brought many changes to education at all levels The most dramatic was the transition, which in some respects seems permanent, to online teaching and learning (Mishra, Gupta, & Shree, 2020). There is now significant and disturbing evidence that this has been far from positive. Everywhere, there are reports that students are badly prepared, disengaged, and unable to meet the demands of rigorous courses.

So far it appears that the loss of learning and the decline of cognitive skills are greater in North America, Western Europe, and the English-speaking world than in Asia. There are signs that major Western universities are changing their admissions policies and emphasising membership of protected groups and commitment to social and environmental aspirations rather than academic merit or cognitive skills (Lovell & Mallinson, 2021).

At the same time, it seems that research and teaching appointments are in many American and European institutions significantly dependent on a commitment to political orthodoxy. Western universities appear to be downplaying their roles as research centres and providers of instruction in advanced academic and professional subjects and emphasising their contribution, actual or rhetorical, to a variety of environmental goals. See Berkeley (2020) for example. Such concerns are beginning to influence the construction of international and national rankings.

Developments in university rankings

Some ranking agencies have been keen to offer universities a chance to show their capabilities outside the scholarly and scientific domains. THE now has an Impact Ranking that reflects the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, assessed through a variety of bibliometric, institutional, and qualitative indicators. This is becoming as popular as THE's standard research orientated rankings, perhaps even more so, in some parts of the world, although definitely not in China. When THE published its Impact Rankings, which purported to assess universities' commitment to various aspects of sustainability, it was noticeable that Chinese universities were greatly underrepresented although one, Fudan University, did very well (Times Higher Education, 2022a). Elsewhere, their influence is growing. The THE Arab University Rankings now include indicators based on Impact participation and scores.

QS has now followed with sustainability rankings. There is no opting out of these but it is noticeable that Chinese universities are way down the list compared with the QS World University Rankings or other research-based tables (L, 2022). Also, China has largely avoided taking part in the Universitas Indonesia GreenMetric, the original sustainability rankings, although there are 26 Taiwan universities in the 2021 list (UI GreenMetric, 2022).

The outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war saw a variety of measures introduced by various Western ranking agencies. For example, THE continues to publish the scores and ranks of Russian universities but they are greyed out. QS has announced that it will not start new commercial projects with Russia and Belarus. Webometrics publishes overall ranks of Russian and Belorussian universities but not for the component indicators. A survey of the reactions of the various rankers to the conflict can be found in Pagell (2022).

On the other side, the Round University Rankings have moved their headquarters from Moscow to Tbilisi, Georgia. It seems that the provision of data for these rankings from Clarivate Analytics has been suspended and the rankings are now building their own database. It is not certain what will happen but it is possible that a Eurasian based ranking will emerge with little or no participation from North America and Western Europe.

Another recent trend is a growing emphasis on national and regional rankings. It is instructive to look at the way national rankings are developing. The Shanghai national rankings of Chinese universities assign a 30% weighting to the quality of incoming students, 10% for graduate employment, and nothing for faculty student ratio (Shanghai Ranking, 2022). Compare this with the USA rankings jointly produced by THE and the Wall Street Journal, which have nothing for the quality of incoming students and 11% for faculty student ratio (Times Higher Education, 2022b). QS also has a USA ranking which again has nothing for incoming students but also has a faculty student indicator (Topuniversities, 2021).

It seems then that national rankings in the West will emphasise financial and teaching resources and adherence to sustainability and social mobility aspirations. We can expect that those in China, Russia, and probably other parts of Asia, will focus on student quality and research productivity.

The future

It is unlikely that the fragmentation of the globalised world will be stopped even if it does not culminate in all out-world war. We can expect the national higher education systems to evolve separately with North America and Western Europe emphasising identity politics, sustainability and personal authenticity, while China and Russia, and probably a good part of Central and East Asia and the Middle East will continue to centre academic and intellectual skills and research in the harder disciplines.


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Editor(s)-in-Chief: Helga DORNER

Associate Editors 

  • Csíkos, Csaba (Eötvös Lorand University, Hungary)
  • Csizér, Kata (Eötvös Lorand University, Hungary)
  • Dorner, Helga (Central European University, Hungary)


Editorial Board

  • Basseches, Michael (Suffolk University, USA)
  • Billett, Stephen (Griffith University, Australia)
  • Cakmakci, Gültekin (Hacettepe University, Turkey)
  • Damsa, Crina (University of Oslo,Norway)
  • Dörnyei, Zoltán (Nottingham University, UK)
  • Endedijk, Maaike (University of Twente, The Netherlands)
  • Fejes, Andreas (Linköping University, Sweden)
  • Guimaraes, Paula (University of Lisbon, Portugal)
  • Halász, Gábor (Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary)
  • Hansman, Catherine A. (Cleveland State University, USA)
  • Kroeber, Edith (Stuttgart University, Germany)
  • Kumar, Swapna (University of Florida, USA)
  • MacDonald, Ronald (University of Prince Edward Island, Canada)
  • Marsick, Victoria J. (Columbia University, USA)
  • Martensson, Katarina (Lund University, Sweden)
  • Matei, Liviu (Central European University, Hungary)
  • Matyja, Malgorzata (Wroclaw University of Economics, Poland)
  • Mercer, Sarah (University of Graz, Austria)
  • Nichols, Gill (University of Surrey, UK)
  • Nokkala, Terhi (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland)
  • Ostrouch-Kaminska (Uniwersytet Warminsko-Mazurski, Poland)
  • Pusztai, Gabriella (University of Debrecen, Hungary)
  • Ramesal, Ana (Barcelona University, Spain)
  • Reischmann, Jost (Bamberg University, Germany)
  • Rösken-Winter, Bettina (Humboldt, Germany)
  • Ryan, Stephen (Waseda University, Japan)
  • Török, Erika (Pallasz Athéné University, Hungary)
  • Wach-Kakolewicz, Anna (Poznan University of Economics and Business, Poland)
  • Watkins, Karen E. (University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia)




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