Global ranking fever

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The impact of university academic culture and leadership on the symptoms of "global ranking fever": the case of one Russian university in particular institutional context

Ivan Pavlyutkin and Maria Yudkevich

National Research University Higher School of Economics

In this paper we discuss how institutional culture of academic system affects the response of university to global rankings pressure. Rankings as strong public measures determine the process of organizational change on the university level. At the same time nature and the degree of change depends on whether university is driven by market-based or state-based logic of accountability. It has been shown that rankings got their power in a competitive environment when they represent students’ choice, reputation scores, and donation rates. External market pressure enforces universities to deal with rankings on the organizational level. Very few attempts were made to investigate the university response to rankings in a state dominated academic system. How does the university with a ‘blunted feeling of competition’ organize changes in order to enter the world-class league? To address this issue we conducted a case study of one Russian university which has recently entered the race for global academic excellence. We emphasize the significant role of academic culture and leadership as driving forces for a radical internal change on the one side and for copying with the symptoms of “global ranking fever” on the other.

Plunge we in Time’s tumultuous dance,

In the rush and roll of Circumstance.

Then may delight and distress,

And worry and success,

Alternately follow, as best they can: Restless activity proves the man!
Goethe, Faust


Rankings’ ability to influence and even to change global higher education landscape makes them influential tools. More and more countries are involved today in ‘ranking games’ spending impressive amount of resources on special programs for academic excellence which use ranking positions as indicators of advancement and object of national pride (Yudkevich et al, 2015). The movement for becoming ‘world-class’ enforces institutional changes to strengthen leading national universities and to put them on the foreground of global academic field. Since rankings have been presented as exceptional public measures for national academic competitiveness one could argue that individual universities or even higher education systems are fevered by the aspiration of becoming ranked. Although less than 7% of all universities are presented in major international rankings much more higher education institutions in the world are involved today in the activities aimed to ‘join the club’. For example, it has been accented that being a country with a strong system of education and science Russia has very low representation of leading universities in academic rankings. Awareness of this fact prompted the Russian Government to initiate a special program in order to stimulate universities to get into the top-100 of global rankings. Fifteen universities highly ranked at the national level (very low or no ranked at the global level) were selected on the competitive basis and has joined this program. While these universities are in most cases still quite far from reaching the program’ goal they all now use performance measures associated with global rankings as decision-making tools.

Recent studies on the rankings’ impact have shown that universities from different academic systems transform themselves under the pressure of ‘ranking games’ (Hazelkorn 2011). They enforce universities as corporate actors to provide high performance rates - highly cited scientific publications, international students and faculty, high reputational scores from students and alumni. Although universities traditionally oriented themselves towards teaching and research the idea of being a part of a global academic field means structural, institutional and even cultural shifts for hundreds of them all over the world. With that we can observe different reactions of universities whose strategies and decision making process were imposed by the fact of being ranked. The reaction differs not only between universities of high and low ranks (Hazelkorn 2007), but between universities embedded in different academic systems. Following Clarks’ triangle (Clark 1983) we can still divide academic systems which are governed by market, state authority or academic oligarchy. It means, for example, that environmental pressure which determines the university behavior could be ordered by a competitive or bureaucratic logic. It has been discussed through various studies that rankings got their power in a competitive environment when they represent students’ choice, reputation scores, and donation rates and so on. External market pressure enforces universities to deal with rankings on the organizational level (Locke 2011). In spite of the fact that numeric rankings are presented as markets devices which facilitate a competitive environment and values the logic of efficiency in academic work and governance, university is also embedded in institutional field which forms the relevant logic of accountability. It means that rankings as calculative devices function differently under the market or state dominated institutional culture. What is the university response to rankings in a state dominated academic system1? How does the university with a ‘blunted feeling of competition’ organize and manage changes in order to respond to a rankings pressure? To answer these questions we conducted a case study of one Russian university which has recently entered the race for global academic excellence. While many policy-makers as well as academics in the Anglo-Saxon world take the competitive model and its institutional consequences for granted, we explain how an alternative model with no competition between universities themselves but rather direct relationship between universities and State, may affect university decisions and effectiveness in the global ranking game.

On the institutional level Russian system of higher education is still characterized by the teaching-research separation between university sector and institutions of Academy of sciences, the so-called inbreeding modes of academic and administrative personnel, the dominance of Russian language in publications and academic courses, and the statist economy of academic sector in terms of funding and quality assurance (Pavlyutkin and Yudkevich 2016). This means that institutional conditions for ‘ranked universities’ are different and the consequences of rankings influence will be different for universities embedded in a competitive or state monopolized environment. Besides that the university age and the stage of involvement in a ranking game are also important in a reaction to the excellence race. Most leading universities in Russia have joined global rankings game less than five years ago. Some of them are comparatively young.

Simultaneously, to explain the reaction of universities to global rankings the role of leadership should be disclosed. The degree of internalization and institutionalization of performance metrics into university organization depends on the interpretation which is provided by academic administrators to university dynamics in rankings’ measures and to the process of ongoing organizational change.

Organizational response of universities to rankings’ pressure

Since global rankings have become a powerful instrument for institutional change in higher education systems more studies appear to reveal their influence at the organizational level of universities (Martins 2005; Sauder & Espeland 2009; Locke 2011; Colyvas 2012). Rankings have been already discussed in terms of student’s choice and selection (Monks & Ehrenberg 1999; Meredith 2004; Bowman & Bastedo 2009), resource dependence and financial strategies (Bastedo & Bowman 2011), institutional strategies and leadership (Hazelkorn 2008; Hazelkorn 2011) organizational identity and reputation (Espeland & Sauder 2007; Elsbach and Kramer 1996; Sauder and Fine 2008; Bastedo & Bowman 2010), power and disciplinary effects (Sauder & Espeland 2009; Pusser, Marginson 2013). Research on rankings’ impact conducted through various methods from quantitative surveys of university administration to individual cases of universities highlights the importance of knowledge about how these public measures shape and perform the organizational reality of higher education.

Rankings change academic organization which is formed out of the relationship between external environment and internal organizational order. Reputational rankings are presented as powerful devices which enforce organizational changes inside universities to respond external demands from those who use performance metrics as a decision-making tool. Internalization and institutionalization of public measures inside universities occurs through changes in organizational structure and identity as their images should correspond to those imposed by rankings. The linear logic of governance (as if goals are measured outcomes which should be achieved at a certain period of time and with a given amount of resources) differs from the in-linear logic of shared academic governance which was expressed by many organizational theorists as a specific ‘paradigm of academic organization’ (Birnbaum, 1991; Colyvas, 2012). Presented as an example of key performance metrics which put ends on the place of goals rankings question the simple idea (or the ‘old paradigm’) of academic organization as loosely coupled system.

Institutional vision of university organization shows that effective changes could be replaced by ceremonial ones as long as it is perceived in the logic of bureaucratic pressure (Meyer, Rowan 1977; Czarniawska, Genell 2002). The idea of “loose coupling” (Weick 1976) in education contained the image of parallel or reciprocal relations between academic and administrative worlds that function to protect the core academic activity and respond to external pressures. The notion of organizations as “coupled systems”, or “coupling structures” offers a fruitful image of how this relationship between identity and structure is mediating inside different types of organizations and mainly universities. K. Weick defined “loose coupling” as a situation in which elements are responsive, but retain evidence of separateness and identity (Weick, 1976: 3). Later, in Orton and Weick’s paper on loosely coupled reconceptualization authors brought a wider perspective on this concept discussing its dialectical interpretation. As long as the degree of coupling depends on ‘responsiveness’ of elements on the one side and their ‘distinctiveness’ on the other we can observe and classify different types organizations or their temporal regimes according to the relationship between structure and identity. “If there is neither responsiveness nor distinctiveness, the system is not really a system, and it can be defined as a noncoupled system. If there is responsiveness without distinctiveness, the system is tightly coupled. If there is distinctiveness without responsiveness, the system is decoupled. If there is both distinctiveness and responsiveness, the system is loosely coupled” (Orton, Weick 1990: 205).

Rankings question the idea of loose coupling as they work as disciplinary devices and bring the notion of tight coupling in university which means the ‘reciprocity gap’. As long as markets value reputational signals and a competitive choice as important conditions of academic regulation they enforce universities to tight coupling between administrative goals and academic outcomes. Institutional vision of university organization as loose coupling system puts legitimacy as a key organizational variable which could explain the logic of change in its formal structure and identity. Rankings question the ‘old paradigm’ of academic organization which relates goal and technological ambiguity, organizational anarchy, non-linear governance to substantial or natural elements of universities as organizations. The practical usage of rankings as key performance measures assumes that goals are measured outcomes which should be achieved at a certain period of time and with a given amount of resources (Colyvas, 2012).

We emphasize the significant role of academic culture and university leadership as driving forces for a radical internal change on the one side and for copying with the symptoms of “global ranking fever” on the other. The involvement in a global academic race means tremendous institutional and cultural shift for those universities which are embedded in local patterns of academic work and organization. Whether university change means formal or substantial change depends on the degree of buffering between structures and their activities. For example, Sauder and Espeland studying US law schools have noted that “decoupling is not determined solely by the external enforcement of institutional pressures or the capacity of organizational actors to buffer or hide some activities. Members' tendency to internalize these pressures, to become self-disciplining, is also salient. Internalization is fostered by the anxiety that rankings produce, by their allure for the administrators who try to manipulate them, and by the resistance they provoke” (Sauder and Espeland 2009: 63). Simultaneously, internalization of rankings occurs through various interpretations of university administrators and academicians who make sense of changes.

In the rest of the paper we demonstrate how radical change in one Russian university which assumed a cultural shift in the notions of academic work and university governance questioned the role of university administrators in moral discussion of rankings’ influence.

The case of one Russian University. Data and Methods

Ours is the case of one leading Russian university, the National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE). This case allows us to demonstrate several perspectives reflecting the impact of global rankings on universities.

HSE is now the largest center for the study of social sciences and economics Russia and actively improves her positions in humanities and hard sciences. The university was established in 1992 as a new specialized higher education institution (initially focused on economics only). Now, HSE has four campuses, located in Moscow (established in 1992), Saint-Petersburg (established in 1998), Nizhniy Novgorod (established in 1996) and Perm (established in 1998). HSE runs bachelor’s, specialist’s, master’s, and advanced postgraduate programs and at the beginning of 2014/2015, HSE has about 25,000 students (the largest campus being in Moscow, with more than 16,000 students) (for more information and history of HSE see Pavlyutkin and Yudkevich (2016), Froumin (2011)). HSE has diversified sources of funding (including tuition fees and consulting money earned at the market) substantial part of its budget comes from the State in the form of per-student head funding for teaching students at educational programs of all levels and support for HSE basic research. While HSE is an established national leader as teaching institution, research center and analytical think-tank, it still is not very visible internationally and undertakes her first attempt to improve visibility at the global academic market for academics, employers and prospective students.

Until 2014, HSE had approximately 30 faculties and schools. However, the university is now in the process of a major structural reform aiming to combine faculties and schools in disciplinary clusters (so-called ‘mega-faculties’). Eleven mega-faculties were recently created at the Moscow campus and are supposed to have more autonomy in financial issues and decision-making than the smaller faculties they replaced, but they are also expected to be more accountable. Deans of these new structures are supposed to be more powerful but also more responsible for the performance of their schools.

University involvement in the ‘5-100’ program encouraged critical discussions among different groups on what is valued and worth in a university. Global rankings got various meanings and marked different things from being important measures of university progress and reputation to the damaging instrument. Being involved in new national program of global competitiveness central administration of HSE committed to achieve high positions in global rankings race. Taking this new frame into account they started changes in organizational rules and implementation of new institutional solutions on the academic contract and university governance. Besides they took the role of sense-givers for the middle management and academic staff, translate these innovations and embed them in a continuous organizational history of HSE.

This study is based on 17 in-depth interviews with faculty and administrators (top and departmental level) (July – August 2014). Interviewed administrators are responsible for academic development at their faculties (deans, deputy deans) or coordinate these activities for the university in whole. Besides the interviews we also used university statistics and strategic documents that were relevant for the discussion of rankings and their impact2. ().

Academic administrators are at the forefront of organizational changes. They are in between of academic and administrative worlds. At HSE we can distinguish 2 types of administrators. First, there are professional administrators who neither teach nor do research but are just responsible of administrative processes. Some of them might have an academic background but in general they are not the part of “academic tribe”. Second, there are administrators who have an academic background and who still combine administrative and academic responsibilities. That may include project managers, deans and deputy deans, and even vice-rectors. For some of them administrative part of the job is primary one, for other – secondary one, but in any case it takes considerable amount of their time and efforts.

One of the hypotheses that emerge from HSE case is that university change provided by institutional pressure of global ranking depends on the type of administrators who organize coupling between academic and administrative worlds. Administrator who stands at the forefront of changes influences on whether university is tightly or loosely coupled in response to global rankings pressure. It means that to explain the logic and consequences of change we need to understand their identity, values, vision and interests (Kezar 2012).

Radical organizational change at HSE: rules, structures, identities

The HSE case has been determined as a specific type of university at the crossroads. Since its foundation university was oriented towards international standards of education and research through various forms of activities and cooperation with various partners (LSE, Paris-I Sorbonne and Erasmus University as first key ones). At the same time it was embedded in a specific type of institutional culture that is to a certain extent indifferent or even repels values of competition and selection, faculty turnover, external hiring, Anglo-Saxon standards and routines of professionalism and performance in academic and administrative work. Such a contradiction has not been recognized as a problem until the date university was obliged to become a ‘ranked university’. It means that to make a progress in the global rankings HSE should become correspondent to the image imposed by them. To become a highly-ranked world-class university HSE governors started a frame-bending change.

At the organizational level they started from the implementation of new governance model. The new status of faculty dean appointed by the rector was accompanied by the introduction of key performance measures directly and indirectly reflecting the global ranking measures (number of faculty publications in Scopus and Web of Science, citation indexes, number of international students and faculty, external research funding and etc.). Success or failure in KPI achievements in the current year are then related to the amount of financial resources which faculty will receive from the university central budget next year for strategic and academic activities. “The worst don’t get anything” maxima were provided by the strategic planning office and governing board in order to stimulate faculty management teams to become more active in the realization of HSE road map of global competitiveness. It is hard to objectify the intended and unintended consequences of these changes at the early stage of transformation, although we have witnessed the negative reaction of academicians on introduced measures. Nevertheless, it questions the idea of academic organization as loosely coupled system where academicians could organizationally protect their distinctiveness in the whole system and provide other notions of university goals, for example not definitely measured, but communicated goals.

One of the radical shifts in established social order was the transformation of existing notion of academic work at the university. The meaning of this transformation could be presented in the following statement: from the university as a team of associates to the university as corporation of high performance employees. Change occurs through several mechanisms: a). Professional socialization and retraining of teaching and administrative staff (courses in general and academic English, data analysis, academic writing); b). Implementation of new professional standards and principles of academic contract including reward system based on research productivity; c). Start of open recruitment policy with lower long-term employment warranties and increasing turnover rates. These elements should work as mechanisms for increasing performance rates.

The ‘Publish or Perish’ principle was implemented into the academic contract and distribution of internal research grants even before HSE started to care about rankings. On the first step it was realized through the salary system (merit pay) which stimulates academic performance (mainly publications) in exchange for 50-200% of average teacher’s salary (it is important to mention that the average level of teacher’s salary at the HSE is still one of highest among Russian universities and a good one for European universities.). Besides the internal grants competition for research funds also took quantity and on the next step quality of publications as key performance indicators. From 2005 to 2010 academic rewards or bonuses didn’t include international publications as a distinct category. As this mechanism of pay for performance has been institutionalized in academic environment the need to increase productivity has been realized annually through lowering the value of each publication at the system of rewards and creating the hierarchy between different types of publications according to the relevance for global rankings measures. For example publications in Russian “cost” lower than in English, working papers, book chapters or teaching materials lower than journal articles, article at lower-impact journal lower than at high-impact one. Of course such a system brought negative comments from those who valued other patterns of academic work – preferred books more than articles (as sociologists), French or German more than English (as philosophers), national journals more than international ones (as faculty at law department). As a reaction, in many cases this system was modified according to the disciplinary and faculty needs, although increasing demand for publications was untouchable (e.g. it takes into account that in the field of computer science presentations at some major conferences may be far more than journal publications). It was an effective demand. More over there is a need for constant changes in the performance criteria (faster, higher, stronger!) in order to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

Implementation of this system and its regular modification since 2005 contributed to the higher publication rates not only from the newcomers (mainly from international job market) who were expected to perform according to new university standards, but also from old-timers and especially young age academicians who entered university after their graduation from HSE master and PhD programs. At the same time during the interviews with our respondents they mentioned negative consequences of such progress in terms of higher workload, endless administrative changes, and increased requirements to the observed quantity and quality of outputs. Many faculty members mention that they are “tired of constant change of rules of the game” and feel stressed because of uncertainty that is caused by these changes.

In the case of HSE, rankings strengthen institutional or administrative cohesion as a ‘whole university’ should be mobilized to succeed clear and objectified goals. At the same time they question university symbolic integrity. This process has two consequences. First is that university internal governance under rankings creates symbolic boarders between the departments / employees that are most compatible within these settings, and those who are on the periphery. For example, mathematicians, philosophers, journalists, lawyers in different universities around the world will have their own visions and positions in rankings considered as important metrics of performance. But in the administrative settings they are similarly ranked under universal organization rules. The second is that rankings constituted a symbolic border between different administrators and academic staff. Administrators find more sense in ranking games as they give clear signals, operational, fruitful for the theory of management of the university. Being tools for administrators they create distance from teachers who do not want to be observed and controlled. Academicians organize their activities according to their own notions about work, reputation and professionalism. It seems that it is the administrators, by establishing common rules and standards, contribute to maintaining of the institutional integrity of the organization. However, it has the opposite effect, as faculty members in response to changes seek to express and localize their disciplinary specificity.

Institutional change and the role of leadership

As long as strong performance measures are embedded in university governance the problematic question may arise – whether global rankings translated for the university embedded in specific institutional culture will provide the transition from loose to tight coupling, as we have observed in the competitive US system (Sauder, Espeland 2009) or we could expect other reactions at the system with a strong State domination.

University changes were characterized as a dramatic at the oldest faculties as they consisted from people engaged in the historical formation of young university. HSE was presented as a university which was founded and developed by a team of associates who shared common values of academic work in economics and social sciences. Those who were devoted to the HSE development at the early stages and were described as associates were emotionally upset.

When I came at early 1990s, HSE was a team of associates. Everyone knew each other - administration, teachers, workers of different services, accounting. They have shared values about changes in post-soviet economy and education. There was no division between administrators and academicians. Indeed the university consisted of people who knew each other and have good relations. Nowadays this university is completely different.

(Male, Former Dean, Professor, 22 years at HSE)

In 2000s university choose a poaching strategy of recruitment and invited leading academicians from universities of Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Kazan and some other major university and research centers. Besides that HSE hires its own graduates for academic and administrative positions. Till the end of 2010 these professionals could be determined as an academic core of university and their faculties. Implementation of new strategy and road map changed the idea of academic core and brought new classification based on academic productivity. Some of academicians who were classified as the core members a decade ago went to the periphery because of ‘Publish or Perish’ principle.

Ambitious goals of getting in the global rankings should be reached through the system of administrative rules and acts that can lead to unpleasant consequences for university teaching staff not only in terms of resources but dismissals. This situation is recognized as a new trend in university development. In this case faculty administrators work under pressure because they are both colleagues and administrators at the same time. They are expected to take the role of buffer between central administration and teaching staff accumulating and translating information about occurring changes and accumulating reaction from both sides. Such a ‘double movement’ of university organizing coupled by faculty administrators creates specific dilemmas of university governance.

Two specific facts about HSE governance help to smooth this possible antagonism. First is that university is still governed by administrators who value their academic identity but not professional managers. It means that they don’t only express their values through talks but they are able to demonstrate academic performance as they publish papers in good peer-reviewed journals. They experience what to become international scholar is. This fact gives them ‘moral arguments’ in hot and complicated discussions while realizing radical organizational transformation as long as they demonstrate high academic productivity that are expected from the rest of employees. They are still recognized as colleagues. As one of the vice-rectors has commented:

This is like schizophrenia when you are a colleague and administrator at the same time, but it is important as you can understand how academicians work and do their job. My belief is that key positions in university governance should be occupied by scholars but not pure managers.

(Male, Vice Rector, Professor, 16 years at HSE)


Leading Russian universities that have good chances to improve their positions in global rankings got financial support from the government to do that. The bureaucratic logic of accountability presumes permanent control over quick victories and formal indicators (such as number of publications, citations, international students and faculty etc). There are no external incentives for the university administration to make substantial efforts to major profound changes and not substitute them for formal ajustment to government requirement and improvement of formal indicators without any control for research and teaching quality (e.g. via publications in predatory journals or enrolling weak international students).

For many universities in Russia the seriously formulated top down task of getting into the top 100 of the global rankings means radical and deep change not only in existing university structures but in the classifications of academic employees and notions of academic work and performance.

We have already mentioned that HSE can’t be considered as a typical Russian university because of the young age, academic profile, dynamics of growth and of course positioning in the field of national higher education. Although university became the leading one at the national level and sought to become the phenomena of new age that excludes traditional, conservative, Soviet period patterns of teaching and research in economics, social sciences and humanities, and first year experience of global rankings show that it was embedded in a specific type institutional culture which is not suitable to the patterns imposed by global ranking games. We have shown that rankings virtually impose such patterns of objectified goals and organizational solutions which start the reflection process on organizational and academic identity. This is a reflection on whether university is still devoted to its initial mission or whether global rankings could strengthen or weaken its realization. How such an abstract thing as university mission is related to such an abstract thing as global rankings? How academic employees and university administrators value this or that thing in their special activities or daily routine? What price in terms of resources, dismissals, relations should university pay for making progress in the global ranking? All these questions have been expressed by our respondents during the discussions on current changes, university transition and global rankings. They also indicate some voltage or friction between such virtual groups as administrators and academicians, newcomers and old-timers, insiders (“inbred”) and outsiders.

As we have shown in our case of university those administrators who value academic identity call themselves “schizophrenics” as they should push and pull what they value. One of the moral solutions to this “schizophrenia” is to show that you can fulfill by yourself what is required from the rest. This brings you moral arguments in a discussion on enforcement and shows that you are still in the same boat. This feeling of academic world provide administrator with moral right on radical change as long as he can maintain the balance between two parties. This idea does not correspond to the notion of professional management in higher education and the need for the division of academic and administrative labor (“Everybody should mind their own business”). The more administrators without academic experience the “ranked university” hires the more it will increase the distance between academic and administrative worlds inside university the more university will become a corporate actor without any “quasi” definitions. As long as academic and administrative worlds are more and more alienated (“rankings are games of administrators”) there is a question on what type of administrators could govern these ties and work not only for academic productivity but for university integration.


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1 For the case of China see for example Dunrong (2016)

2 For basic statistics on HSE see

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