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The goal of Project 5-100 is to maximize the competitive position of a group of leading Russian universities in the global research and education market.

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University Rankings: A Useful Tool or a True Gauge of Progress?

September 6, 2019

Ever more countries are joining the race for excellence in higher education, for three main reasons.

To begin with, a superior education system produces top-notch professionals capable of taking forward a country's industrial, research and healthcare agenda, while also contributing to a high quality of life by giving graduates a chance to achieve their potential and earn a comfortable living.

Secondly, a well-educated, highly skilled workforce is a prerequisite to building a strong innovation economy, which, combined with solid political institutions, increases a country's partner value and global political clout.

Finally, there are reputational gains that translate, among other things, into greater inbound investment. A country that trains specialists who are sought-after globally and is home to winners of major international academic awards is seen as a leader in developing intellectual capital. This attracts foreigners, whether high-tech investors or individuals who seek to earn a prized university degree or carve out a fulfilling career.

Consequently, countries like Germany, France, China, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few) have recently been coming up with academic excellence initiatives.

As an integral part of the global scientific and educational space, Russia cannot help engaging with these worldwide trends. It has launched its own initiative, Project 5-100, aimed at making the country's universities more competitive globally. Expanding their presence in international university rankings is one of the project's goals.

A university's chances of beating competition largely depend on its reputation at home and abroad. Here, rankings play an important role. A university that has worked its way into a top slot in a national or global league table becomes vastly more attractive not only to prospective students but also to employers and investors. Rankings are also a useful tool for evaluating performance. With diverse league tables available, comparisons become more objective as well as more informative, since one can compare universities on a variety of metrics and across subjects and research areas. Institutions themselves can use rankings to get a clearer idea of their own global, regional and national standing, their relative strengths and weaknesses, etc.

The particular ranking chosen to assess a university's performance must be suited to its specifics.

Currently, the most widely read global rankings are ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities), THE (The Times Higher Education World University Rankings) and QS (QS World University Rankings). It is these rankings (or families of rankings, since each compiler produces multiple ones) that the Council for Increasing the Competitiveness of Russia’s Leading Universities recommends using to benchmark the performance of Project 5-100 participants and that the National Project for Education employs as a point of reference for evaluating the global competitiveness of Russia's higher education system.

Furthermore, rankings can help universities to select domestic and international partners for running research collaborations or joint educational programs. For this, institutional rankings, which rate only a small fraction of the world's universities, are probably less helpful than rankings by subject or by region, which show potential partners' competencies and regional visibility.

Finally, university rankings are widely consulted by students, both current and prospective, who are in fact the principal target audience for many compilers. This is where specialized rankings that rate universities on internationalization, graduate employability, etc. may come in handy.

Russian universities have been steadily making headway in global rankings.

As of September 1, 2019, international university rankings of all types (institutional, by faculty and by subject) featured a total of 46 Russian higher education providers, of which 19 participate in Project 5-100. Back in 2012, only 15 of this country's universities were rated, 10 of them being Project 5-100 members.

At present (as of September 2019), seven Project 5-100 participants sit within the world's top 100 universities by subject, according to ARWU, QS and THE rankings. They are the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), National Research Technological University MISIS, Novosibirsk State University (NSU), National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), ITMO University, National Research Nuclear University MEPhI and Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU). That nearly all of them make the top 100 by subject according to more than one influential global ranking proves that they have indeed earned a place among the world's premier universities.

While the existence of diverse ranking systems and the constant emergence of new ones is a global phenomenon to be aware of, universities should primarily focus on enhancing their own performance by improving education quality, doing more and better research, developing faculty and staff, etc. An institution that makes progress across the board and does increasingly well in everything that is expected of the modern university cannot fail to attain recognition in the rankings.