Research: Decolonizing Global University Rankings

June 22, 2016


Global university rankings (GURs) have been widely criticized but not through a decolonial lens, an alternative to the mainstream discourse. Assistant Professor Riyad Shahjahan argues the process of ranking universities imposes boundaries on the ways we conceptualize universities. In their review of existing research, he and his colleagues found the emergence of GURs coincides with other forces in higher education, such as quantification of faculty effort and increased calls for accountability. Although some critiques have proposed alternative ranking systems, Shahjahan and his colleagues found these alternatives fail to challenge the underlying logic of rankings, which promote standardization and competition. Rather than seeking to provide “solutions” to a problem, they asked themselves what would be possible to imagine for universities using different theories of knowledge:

  • What kind of human beings are imagined through GURs?
  • What forms of knowledge production are reproduced through GURs?
  • How can we imagine higher education beyond the confines of modernity?

In a forthcoming paper, Shahjahan and his co-authors, Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti and Gerardo Blanco-Ramirez, bring different insights foregrounded by their own experiences as transnational scholars of color whose academic work is impacted by GURs.

“The thing knowledge can’t eat”

In his contribution to the paper,  Shahjahan explores indigenous Dagara philosophy in relation to GURs. Malidoma Patrice Somé, a shaman healer from the Dagara nation in West Africa, introduced the notion of Yielbongura—the idea of “the thing that knowledge can’t eat.” What follows from this idea, Shahjahan argues, is that knowledge production, the concept of learning, cannot be categorized. Rather, knowledge production would resist categorization, being stripped of its “spiritual nature” and turned into a “secular material thing” through rankings. From this interpretation, GURs would not exist, but be a distraction from addressing other root problems in higher education.

Shahjahan hopes others will explore programs and practices that construct educational alternatives to the dominant institutional models perpetuated by GURs. He believes scholars must continue to tell their stories and imagined alternatives to ensure a healthy global higher education system.

More HALE research

The Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) faculty at Michigan State University studies a variety of topics across postsecondary education. The Center for Higher and Adult Education, funded by an endowment from Bruce Erickson, publishes a report highlighting faculty work each semester. These articles are excerpted from that report. To request a copy, call (517) 353-5187. For more information, visit