In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Performance-based Research Assessment in Higher Education

  • Introduction
  • Global, Regional, and National League Tables and the “World Class University”
  • International Comparisons of National Systems of Performance-Based Research Assessment in Higher Education
  • Origins of National Systems of Performance-Based Research Assessment
  • Increasing Diversity of National Systems of Performance-Based Research Assessment
  • Bibliometrics, Peer Review, and Systems of Judgment
  • The Production of Disciplinary Knowledge
  • Neo-liberalism, New Managerialism, and Performativity
  • Academic Work, Identity, and Equity
  • The Future of Performance-based Research Assessment in Higher Education

Education Performance-based Research Assessment in Higher Education
Lisa Lucas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0133


The phenomenon of Performance-Based Research Assessment (PBRA) in higher education is a national, regional, and global one. It is a broad-ranging area of research and commentary and not a field that is easy to capture or summarize. In attempting to do so, this article will predominantly draw upon the wide range of research that has been conducted on national systems of PBRA in higher education as well as the comparisons made of these different national systems. It will also address, however, the continued significance of “global league tables,” most notably the Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China and the Times Higher Education Supplement University World Rankings in the United Kingdom. It is important to note that these PBRA systems are constantly in flux, so anything that is written can quickly become outdated. This article is organized in terms of themes, which capture the historical and political significance of predominantly national PBRA systems and the significance they have in challenging our ideas of universities, how they should be governed and funded and ultimately in potentially re-shaping the mission of higher education institutions and changing the work done by academics and the production of disciplinary knowledge. It is a diverse research field with a wide range of disciplinary perspectives that have been taken to investigate this topic and the span of disciplinary theories and methodologies, including disciplines such as statistics, policy analysis, and sociology. Those authors writing on PBRA in higher education are academics across all disciplines within the broad areas of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities as well as non-academic managers and leaders within higher education. It is an issue that is debated by individuals across the whole system of higher education. The literature can be broadly based within two areas, a perspective that views PBRA systems as a means to improve accountability and efficiency of research in higher education, which attempts to compare and contrast the PBRA systems and argue for the best and most efficient way of organizing them while recognizing that improvements must be made to ensure fairness and equity. The other is a critique of the whole project of PBRA systems, which are seen to be allied to neo-liberal and new public management ideological agendas and employs critical theoretical perspectives to show the deleterious impacts of such systems on knowledge production within universities and academic work and identity.

Global, Regional, and National League Tables and the “World Class University”

The significance of Global League Tables of universities has been emphasized in an extensive amount of literature and is often discussed in relation to the broader literature on globalization and its potential impacts on higher education. The idea of the interconnectedness of the global space is theorized and debated in terms of its impacts on different world regions and nations. In terms of higher education institutions it means that they are compelled to compete in this global space and their work and particularly research outputs are judged within the global as well as national arena. The methodologies underpinning these Global League Tables are debated and critiqued leaving many commentators such as Cheng 2011; Chou, et al. 2013 (cited under Increasing Diversity of National Systems of Performance-Based Research Assessment); and Ishikawa 2009 to conclude that they are unfair and biased and work to serve the global elite. Marginson 2007 and Hazelkorn 2011 provide a wide-ranging analysis and critique of these global ranking systems and their impact on systems of higher education and university leaders and managers. In parallel with these global league tables, the notion of the “World Class” University has also emerged and the creation of these has been discussed as an aim of many policymakers and university leaders. The confusion over what the term actually means and how it should be defined is found in Altbach and Salmi 2011, which has been influential in extending discussion and thinking around this concept. Much of the literature that discusses global league tables of universities provides a comparison of some of the methodologies employed and many are highly critical of the potential bias entailed by the emphasis on research excellence (measured in a variety of ways) and in particular, according to Lo 2011, the Western Anglophone countries. It is intended that the major arguments expounded in this literature are represented below, but it is a diverse and ever increasing area of study. European Journal of Education 2014 brings together a range of commentators on Global University Rankings.

  • Altbach, P., and J. Salmi. 2011. The road to academic excellence: The making of world-class research universities. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    DOI: 10.1596/978-0-8213-8805-1

    Both authors have published on the topic of the “world class” university, and this edited book brings together some of the key arguments and critiques through an extensive case study of different national systems of higher education. It evaluates the methodologies of the international ranking bodies.

  • Cheng, Soh Kay. 2011. Mirror, mirror on the wall: A closer look at the top ten in university rankings. European Journal of Higher Education 1.1: 77–83.

    DOI: 10.1080/21568235.2011.577179

    Provides a critique of the methodologies employed to rank universities on a global scale. The data is perceived as fallible and prone to measurement error. The “spurious precision” of such exercises is critiqued.

  • Hazelkorn, E. 2011. Rankings and the reshaping of higher education: The battle for world-class excellence. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230306394

    This is a comprehensive book that serves to both explain as well as critique the methodologies employed to produce global rankings of universities. Through detailed empirical studies, this book also outlines the ways in which these ranking exercises serve to produce key organizational changes in universities employed by senior management in order to achieve high rankings.

  • Ishikawa, M. 2009. University rankings, global models, and emerging hegemony: Critical analysis from Japan. Journal of Studies in International Education 13.2: 159–173.

    DOI: 10.1177/1028315308330853

    This is an interesting critical perspective from Japan that provides an empirical case study of one research university and the struggles over identity and the quest for “world-class” status.

  • Kehm, B., and T. Erkkila. 2014. Special issue: Global university rankings: A critical assessment. European Journal of Education 49.1: 1–158.

    Brings together a range of commentators across a number of different countries to give their perspective on the significance and potential impact of global rankings of universities. An important special issue containing new insights into the changing methodologies and changing landscape of global higher education.

  • Lo, William Yat Wai. 2011. Soft power, university rankings and knowledge production: Distinctions between hegemony and self‐determination in higher education. Comparative Education 47.2: 209–222.

    DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2011.554092

    Extends the arguments given by others on the hegemonic nature of the global rankings system. It provides a discussion of neocolonial critique of the rankings system and proposes an argument of a “soft power” perspective.

  • Marginson, S. 2007. Global university rankings: Implications in general and for Australia. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 29.2: 131–142.

    DOI: 10.1080/13600800701351660

    Provides a critique of the two main global university ranking exercises, AWRU and THESWUR, and proposes that the German CHE system has more to recommend it in terms of fairness and equity.

  • Marginson, S., and M. van der Wende. 2007. To rank or to be ranked: The impact of global rankings in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education 11:306–329.

    DOI: 10.1177/1028315307303544

    Highlights the intrinsic bias of the methodologies employed by the agencies that produce the global rankings of universities. The main argument is that these rankings are predominantly based on the research standing of institutions even though they often reputedly are based on the whole university and the multitude of activities.

  • Robinson, D. 2013. The mismeasure of higher education? The corrosive effect of university ranking. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 13:11–17.

    The potentially detrimental effect of global ranking systems is highlighted in this article. It is argued that such league tables do not necessarily enhance quality and can instead encourage a re-allocation of scarce resources within institutions that can be detrimental.

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