Global university rankings have become a significant feature of the international higher education landscape over the past decade. A growing body of research is focussed on the effects of rankings, commonly upon universities and from a senior management perspective. This study takes a different angle, with a focus on responses to rankings from a group of staff working as education partnership facilitators for a professional intermediary organisation, the British Council. These individuals have a valuable ‘on the ground’ perspective and operate at the intersection of a diverse group of potential customers, consumers and producers of rankings in a wide range of geographical contexts.
The study adopts an activity systems perspective from which to view the narrated experience of 11 education managers; both of the contexts in which rankings are encountered and the range of practices used to reduce tensions created by rankings, or reconcile their effects.
The paper illustrates how rankings have become embedded as a new form of infrastructure in the international education ‘context of practice’; as a tool (to enable benchmarking); as a form of exchange (to demonstrate credentials to customers and stakeholders); and as a division of labour (as a form of delegation of the task of assessing value across national borders).
Practices of this group of staff are focused more around the amplification of the utility of global rankings as a tool and the mediation of their symbolic exchange value. The range of responses to rankings displayed by respondents in this study demonstrates a significant space that has been created for interpretation and reconstruction of meaning. Respondents’ perceptions of the partiality of, and limitations of, global rankings give illustration of how rankings are being conceptualised and help to define possible trajectories for rankings development and alternative instruments.