With the international university rankings season underway, higher education policy-makers and leaders have criticised league tables for distorting university priorities during a major global recession. Delegates speaking at a three-day OECD conference in Paris said rankings did not help. Vice-chancellor of California State University, Charles Reed, caused a stir when he described global rankings as "a disease".
The General Conference of the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education, titled "Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less", is being held in Paris this week.
Reed disagreed that top-ranked universities like Oxford and Cambridge were better than others. "They are different, they are not better. All universities are good because they add value to what we do," he said amid loud applause.
Andrée Sursock of the European Universities Association cautioned: "It is important not to use rankings as proxies for policies," adding: "Personally, I much prefer to look at the forest than count the trees and compare them."
The history of rankings shows that measuring the wrong things "can produce distortions and perverse actions," said Ellen Hazelkorn, a professor at the Dublin Institute of Technology and author of a forthcoming book Rankings and the Battle for World Class Excellence - How rankings are reshaping higher education.
"The drive towards metrics-based tools appear to be a cheap and cheerful transparency instrument but it encourages simplistic solutions, skewing agendas and policies to become what is measured.
"Ultimately the public policy imperative is lost in the belief that quantification equals quality. Policy-making by numbers is not the solution many governments think it is," she said.
Janyne Hodder, a former president of the University of the Bahamas, said rankings distorted the aims of developing country nations.
"The expansion of national and international rankings systems has put pressure on many well-established universities to seek out similar partners and to focus their international outreach in ways that can boost performance in rankings."
While admitting "universities will always be judged by international standards of quality", Hodder added: "The perception of higher education as a humanist endeavour aimed at enriching the human condition across all fields of human activity appears nearly quaint in a fiercely competitive global marketplace which has been rebranding education as a market commodity."
However Brian Denman of the University of New England, Australia, was more positive about how universities would deal with rankings. In a presentation on international university consortia he said he believed "in the future, institutions will not base their reputation on league tables but on the networks they create.
"While they may do so out of economic imperatives more than anything else, what appears promising is that international consortia help to broaden not only the reputations of those scholars who represent the group, but also the institutions to which they are related."
The Paris-based OECD has previously criticised a "near-obsession" with rankings.
During the OECD conference this week Barbara Ischinger, the OECD's Director of Education, admitted that very little was known about the quality of degrees. "We still know very little about what students have learned in their time at university or college," she said.