Rankings and Regional Development: The Cause or the Symptom of Universities’ Insufficient Regional Contributions?

Maria Salomaa, Ridvan Cinar, David Charles

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Universities are increasingly expected to contribute to regional development and the wellbeing of communities in the places in which they are located through a wide range of third mission activities. However, this is an arduous task as these regional activities are usually pitched against other missions, namely teaching and research, and global orientation strategy. While the literature has recently implied that rankings might be the cause of universities’ insufficient regional contributions, the manner in which they inhibit regional engagement is yet to be uncovered. This paper therefore explores how rankings permeate universities and guide the behaviours of academics and top managers and thereby influence their regional engagement activities. Using a multiple case study design entailing semi-structured interviews carried out in Dutch, English and Finnish universities, we demonstrate that rankings inhibit universities’ regional contributions in two ways: i) by exacerbating universities’ difficulty of justifying regional engagement activities to the funders through an emphasis on quantitative third mission indicators, and ii) by encouraging universities to shift their focus from regional relevance to global excellence through stronger institutional profiling. We argue that rankings are not the cause of universities’ insufficient regional contributions per se, but rather a symptom of it; the cause is increasingly global competition between higher education institutions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-44
Number of pages14
JournalHigher Education Governance and Policy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2021


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