The Strength of Weak Expertise: Understanding the Times Higher Education Rankings' Influence

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 09:15
Oral Presentation
Miguel Antonio LIM, University of Manchester, United Kingdom
In this contribution, I show how university rankers are weak yet influential experts in higher education. Using insights from a long field study, interviews with key respondents, and an analysis of hundreds of related documents, I explain how rankers build up their expertise with respect to targeted audiences by carrying out a careful, continued, and negotiated balance of objectives in the production of their ranking tables and other products. Because of their varied operating models and organizational histories, ranking makers face difficult choices. They often have different target audiences (Lim, 2017); although these often overlap with other rankers. Furthermore they need to produce better instruments that are (1) reliable and comparable through time, (2) based on robust data and (3) relevant to their main target audiences. No ranking is able to convincingly achieve these goals. Despite their efforts, there is widespread scepticism regarding the validity and even value of ranking products (see Kehm, 2013, among others). Rankings are regularly critiqued by academics and university managers, even though they are among the primary consumers and users of rankings. Despite this pushback, I show how one organization – the Times Higher Education (THE) - uses this apparent weakness to build up the network of advisers and consultants through a ‘sustained dialogue’ with its target community of ‘higher education thought leaders’. This, in turn, reinforces its position as an agenda-setter and qualified expert in the field.