A few, such as in Chile, are produced by news-media companies. Others, as in Colombia, were carried out by independent researchers. And some, like Brazil, are not so much rankings as government-sanctioned ratings. Whatever their origin, they all serve a purpose that goes beyond boasting or one-upmanship, experts say. The rankings put pressure on lagging universities to up their game, and they give government officials, students, and parents a useful yardstick.
"Global rankings are very important. But there are close to 15,000 higher-education institutions in the world, and the global ranking deals with only 400, 500 of them," says Kazimierz Bilanow, managing director of the Warsaw-based International Observatory on Academic Rankings and Excellence. "There are millions and millions of students who never think of going to Harvard. But they want to go to university and get an education, so they look at their own country. National rankings give them some guidance." Brazil is one of the few countries in the region that has produced an official measure, the National System of Higher Education Evaluation.
The Sinaes, as it is known by its Portuguese-language acronym, evaluates student-learning outcomes and reviews institutions annually. The findings are used by the Ministry of Education in accrediting colleges and academic programs.
Institutions with unsatisfactory scores three years in a row are forbidden to add academic programs or take on new students. They must commit to raising standards, and their subsequent performance is monitored by the ministry. Those that fail to improve after six months are closed down.
Some 1,695 colleges and universities and 6,804 academic programs in Brazil were evaluated in 2009, and 15 institutions received failing marks for a third consecutive year. "When the results come out, they can see where they need to improve," says Claudia Griboski, director of higher-education evaluation at the education ministry. "They know that if having a Ph.D on the staff carries more weight, then they will hire more Ph.D's."
Some institutions with failing grades have challenged the scores and the methodology. But others acknowledge the importance of a rating system and say poor scores will spur them to do better. "We lost points in items that are about a better feeling of the students toward infrastructure and availability of information," says Marcos Julio, academic pro-rector of Grande ABC University, which was "failed" by government auditors. "Since the result was not positive, we will change the practices and the way the university is acting."
The Colombia ranking, published in January by Boletín Científico Sapiens Research, a scientific journal, is more independent. A local researcher, Carlos-Roberto Peña-Barrera, worked out a model and then spent 11 months compiling a ranking from official data and Education Ministry statistics. He used three main criteria: number of graduate students; number of academic journals registered by each institution with Publindex, a Colombian index of top-rated scientific journals; and number of groups of scientists and investigators carrying out research who are registered with Colciencias, the government's office of science and technology. He says the institutions that topped the rankings, called Ranking U-Sapiens Colombia, turned out to be the best-financed ones, which produced most of the literature.
"What this ranking showed is that you have to keep investing," Mr. Peña-Barrera says. "There is a direct economic link, and there is the publication of articles, not just scientific, but all the literature coming from the universities. You have to keep creating investigative groups." In Chile, news-media companies are taking government information and turning it into university rankings. The Chilean government, one of the most open in the region, is publishing more and more statistics on higher education, including courses most likely to lead to jobs, expected salaries on graduation, and space on campus per student.
At least two magazines are using that information, sometimes along with their own, subjective criteria, to produce annual rankings. Chilean educators say that while the rankings are not perfect, they have changed what they do because of them.
"Universities often launch finely targeted campaigns after noting they fare poorly in name recognition compared to rival institutions in more well-to-do areas, even though their scores are just as good," says Gregory Elacqua, director of the Public Policy Institute at Diego Portales University. "Universities definitely respond to [the rankings] and are worried about improving the indicators that are being used and the weights they are given."
Criticism and Skepticism
Just as with global rankings, the domestic versions provoke criticism and skepticism. Some universities, especially private ones, are reluctant to participate, particularly if they know they cannot compete with the richer, publicly financed institutions, says Jaime Contreras, director of the Chilean-university rankings for América Economia magazine.
And cross-border comparisons are tough, because each country has a distinct higher-education system, uses its own exams for entrance and graduation, and has different ways of preparing rankings, says Claudio Rama, Unesco's former director in Latin America and now dean of the business faculty at the University of Business, in Uruguay.
Nevertheless, Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, a British company, known as QS, that publishes world ranking of universities, is working on a Latin American ranking covering 300 institutions in 26 countries. It hopes to publish the results this year.
Governments, too, will continue to develop and produce tables and statistics because they are one of the most transparent ways to help decide where public money goes.
"In Brazil, the rankings have come under discussion, but the rankings are fundamental for the government to rate institutions," says Mr. Rama. "Chile's is a mechanism for the distribution of funds. And in Mexico, the list of publications is used in financing by the government." Whatever the geographical vagaries, Latin American universities are more conscious of the value of national rankings, and of the fact that in today's competitive world, they are here to stay. Universities "see the benefits of a league ranking," says Liliana Casallas, project manager for QS's Latin American rankings. "They see this as an important strategy to internationalize, and they see the potential for starting collaboration with other universities or in research collaborations or to bring international students to their campus."