Seemingly objective? The colonial power of university rankings

White statue busts in front of black bookshelves with old books.

Producing and publishing global rankings of universities are widely institutionalized practices. The idea appears to be simple: placing universities in a hierarchical order that determines how ‘good’ a university is, so as to compare universities. This process requires defining what makes a university good, and better than another one. To do so, each ranking system has several categories that allow us to identify the ‘quality’ of each university. And, voilà: the universities around the world are ranked.

In September 2023, Utrecht University formally withdrew from one of the ranking systems, the 2024 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking. Utrecht’s decision was “a conscious choice,” whose arguments highlight the limitations of ranking systems.[1] On September 29, 2023, Utrecht published a statement explaining how universities should collaborate and work towards open science rather than compete with each other for a higher spot in the ranking. What could be considered as a bold move, poses critical questions on our value system and the current state of higher education. Such criticism has also been raised by other high educational institutions, especially in consideration of the colonial legacies embedded in university rankings. Indeed, university rankings have been increasingly called out and boycotted for being flawed, biased, and unproductive.[2] What do university rankings perpetuate in the current state of the work, and what is the impact of colonialism in the ranking system? These are important questions to address, as universities themselves have the possibility of joining this fight and have the power to do so.

Rankings intend to objectively classify and rate universities, by accounting for their research outputs, amongst other factors. Research outputs, such as publications, and universities’ reputations are in a vicious circle that overlooks the power structures which universities are built upon. Indeed, traditional academic publishing is facilitated — and shaped — by institutional structures in educational systems in North American and Western European settings. As such, the more a university publishes, the more its reputation increases. This path affects the extent to which universities in the Global South can publish in similar spaces, limiting their possibilities of increasing their position in rankings. This further perpetuates systems of oppression, which foster the already present and structural colonial legacies worldwide. Moreover, research demonstrates that universities ranked higher tend to attract more funding, faculty, and students. Consequently, other universities, considered as ‘less prestigious’ are likely to have less funding, faculty, and students. This feeds back into the system, keeping universities in similar positions in rankings. The vicious cycle is established.

University rankings obscure colonial hierarchies. Renowned privileged universities from the Global North maintain their high-ranking positions, insufficiently recognizing the underlying and historical structures contributing to their status. Evidence shows that high-ranked US and Canadian universities partially generated their wealth with profits from slavery.[3] For example, Yale’s benefactor, Elihu Yale, financially supported the establishment of the university buildings itself, whilst promoting plunder and enslavement which supported his finances. As such, the establishment of such universities is intricately linked with the slave trade elsewhere.[4] In Europe, the situation is no different. Scholars argue that “it is no accident that the most esteemed universities of the nineteenth century were located at or near the metropoles of global empires. Berlin, Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris all hosted institutions of higher learning, providing the personnel, knowledge, and technologies of governance and control that sustained colonial domination.”[5] Whilst some of the universities near the capitals of empires were already established before colonial rule, their ties with colonialism allowed them to accumulate wealth and to increase their status. This system of oppression is not limited only to universities based in the capitals of empires. In the Netherlands, for instance, university buildings were paid through money stemming from the slave trade, even in small university towns without “major formal colonial institutions”, such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam.[6] Against this backdrop, there is a direct link between colonialism and the increased status of universities in the Global North.

University building hallway with columns and a person walking in silhouette.
A university building with columns creating an optical illusion-esque image of layers.
Credit: “Sultan Qaboos University” by Martin Dougiamas is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
[Image Description: A hallway with white columns on either side of the image, with a person walking in silhouette near the center of the image.]

Colonial structures not only fostered the wealth and reputation of universities in the Global North, but they also shaped those in the Global South. Colonial education was an instrument to serve the colonial project.[7] Under the English rule, for example, only people of wealthy means moved abroad to pursue engineering studies, predominantly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The majority of Indian engineers, instead, pursued their studies in government colleges which were built by the British empire, following colonial educational frameworks. In this context, Indian engineers were aware of the limitations of the engineering education established by the British rule and politically challenged it.[8] Engineering education had therefore “define objectives” and functioned as a perfect pipeline to employment needed to establish colonial infrastructure projects. Against this backdrop, after its colonial independence, the Indian government at the MIT collaborated to establish the network of Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).[9] Whilst being path-breaking, this leveraged on the fact that Indian engineers participated in global knowledge exchanges. It also followed the logic that higher education in the Global South continued to be shaped after the one in the Global North, which in itself aligns with the colonial hierarchy present in the relationships between the Global North and South. In African nations, so too was colonial education instrumental for subordination and contributing to the colonial project. Existing education structures were replaced by technical training for the provision of cheap and semi-skilled labour so as to suit the colonial purpose. Moreover, Belgium did not establish a university in the Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]) until the 1950s.[10] Indeed, the pretext of education was a Trojan horse colonizer to implement a “forced labour obligation imposed by the colonial state” in the DRC or was left in the hands of religious missions.[11] As such, the development and establishment of higher education institutions was postponed and impeded by colonizers. At the same time, universities in Belgium were growing. This was a temporal advantage because universities in the Global North increased their status whilst colonizing governments prevented or halted the establishment of formal higher education in the Global South. Consequently, Global North universities have an unequal advantage because they have established themselves for longer and built their reputation. It thus allowed them to attract larger budgets and have more access to various resources, including being able to hire established scholars and prestigious funding sources. All this translates into being highly ranked across global university rankings.

In conclusion, global rankings appear not to be exempt from the systemic oppression created by and for colonizing institutions. Additionally, they are not isolated cases of injustice in the current state of university education worldwide. Questions on the marketization and branding of universities echo and enhance such claims. What can be done to address these structures? We do not have a straightforward answer and, as individuals, we intend to engage in conversations that might feel uncomfortable yet are needed to stop concealing the privilege obtained by colonial structures. We propose to start unlearning seemingly objective values on what makes a university a ‘good one,’ whilst supporting the liberation of universities that have been systematically marginalized. Overall, we should undo the myth of the existence of elite universities. Universities in the Global North should follow too, by taking action and challenging institutions and structures that put them on a pedestal. Including, global university rankings.

[1]Why UU is missing in the THE ranking,” Universiteit Utrecht: Nieuws, last modified September 29, 2023.

[2] Richard Horton, “Offline: The silencing of the South.” The Lancet 401, no. 10380 (2023): 889.

[3]Colonization and Slavery – A Short History of Colleges and Universities,” Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, last accessed March 26, 2024.

[4] Elizabeth Keubler-Wolf, “‘Born in America, in Europe bred, in Africa travell’d and in Asia wed’: Elihu Yale, material culture, and actor networks from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first.” Journal of Global History 11, no. 3 (October 2016): 320–43.

[5] Mitchell L. Stevens, and Sonia Giebel, “The Paradox of the Global University”, in World Class Universities. Evaluating Education: Normative Systems and Institutional Practices, ed. Sharon Rider, and Michael A. Peters (Singapore: Springer, 2020), 126.

[6]Sporen van slavernij in Utrecht ook zichtbaar op de universiteit,” Universiteit Utrecht: Nieuws, last modified June 30, 2021.

[7] Oba F. Nwanosike, and Onyije Liverpool Ebo Nwanosike, “Colonialism and Education.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 2, no. 4 (2011): 41-47.

[8] Arun Kumar, “Colonial Requirements and Engineering Education: The Public Works Department, 1847–1947,” in Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India, 1700–1947, ed. Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (New Delhi: Sage Publishers, 1995).

[9] Aparna Basu, “Indian Higher Education: Colonialism and Beyond”, in From Dependence to Autonomy, ed. Philip G. Altbach and Viswanathan Selvaratnam (Dordrecht: Springer, 1989), 167-186.

[10] Ewout Frankema, “Colonial Education and Post-Colonial Governance in the Congo and Indonesia,” in Colonial Exploitation and Economic Development: The Belgian Congo and the Netherlands Indies Compared, ed. Ewout Frankema and Frans Buelens (London: Routledge, 2013), 153-177.

[11] Víctor Fernández Soriano, “‘Travail et progrès’: Obligatory ‘Educational’ Labour in the Belgian Congo, 1933–60.” Journal of Contemporary History 53, no. 2 (2018), 292–314, p. 294.

Cover Image: Library bookshelves with busts. Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash.

[Cover Image Description: Black wooden bookshelves with gold embossed lettering hold old books. A black ladder is in front of one shelf. In front of each row is a white bust of a man sculpted in a classical style.]

Edited by Ramya Swayamprakash; reviewed by Lívia Regina Batista-Pritchard.

Valeria Zambianchi (she/her) is a PhD candidate at KU Leuven, Faculty of Social Sciences, and Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences. As part of her PhD, she works on the ERC-funded project PolyCarbon. She is researching the history of policyscapes affecting climate change mitigation in the UK and the effects of policy interactions on the uptake of solar PV in England and of offshore wind in the North Sea. Valeria has an interdisciplinary background across the social sciences and environmental studies (University of Pavia, University of Copenhagen, and Cambridge University). She is keen to study histories of (in)coherent worldviews and narratives in environmental planning, exploring the socio-ecological and political effects of various (in)coherences.

Kato Van Speybroeck (she/her) is a PhD candidate at KU Leuven, where she is presently engaged in an interdisciplinary research project between the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Division of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Trained as a human geographer and anthropologist, she is interested in exploring how socio-ecological relations are shaped and regulated within urban environments. Her doctoral research delves into how environmental conflicts rethink the city-nature nexus in contemporary environmental politics. Contested green spaces serve as the analytical entry point through which she examines Brussels’ interaction with spontaneous nature.