LONDON -- For a certain kind of European, Asian or Latin American institution, the release of the world university rankings each autumn is an exercise in humiliation. Though often long established, and with good local reputations, these schools lack the endowments, research facilities and sheer size needed to compete with U.S. and British powerhouses like Harvard, M.I.T., Cambridge and Stanford.
So when Quacquarelli Symonds, the London-based company behind the QS World University Rankings, announced "a new initiative that gives universities the opportunity to highlight their strength" by paying a fee for the chance to be rated on a scale of one to five stars, the business case was obvious. But so, say critics, was the potential for conflicts of interest. The fees were announced in 2010, though the initiative was not introduced fully until this year.
The University of Limerick in Ireland did not make two other major international rankings -- Times Higher Education's top 400 or Shanghai Jiaotong University's top 500 -- though it was listed as one of T.H.E.'s top 100 new universities.
Yet after paying a one-time audit fee of $9,850 and an annual license fee of $6,850, the University of Limerick is now able to boast that it has been awarded "5-star ratings across the areas of infrastructure, teaching, engagement and internationalization," according to QS. Its overall ranking was four stars.
University College Cork, which came in 190th in the QS rankings, received an overall rating of five stars, placing it among an international elite that, according to QS, offers students "cutting edge facilities and internationally renowned research and teaching faculty." In comparison, it was placed in the 301-400 band in the Shanghai Jiaotong rankings and in the 301-350 band in the T.H.E. rankings.
For both Irish universities, the QS exercise paid off handsomely. An official at University College Cork told The Irish Examiner newspaper that if the QS stars "result in attracting a single additional, full-time international student to study at U.C.C. then the costs of participation are covered."
"The question is: Are you buying stars?" Ellen Hazelkorn, director of research at the Dublin Institute of Technology and the author of "Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education," said by telephone. "They can say to institutions further down in the rankings, 'You might be able to get yourself a four- or five-star rating,' which would look a lot better on their Web site."
Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Education at Boston College, has long been a critic of rankings. "What they measure is a very narrow slice of what education is about," he said by telephone.
He has written articles objecting to the use of surveys based on reputation, which he says are "of dubious validity," and which make up half of the QS ranking scores. But he described the star ratings as particularly problematic.
"QS use rankings to sell their other products," he said. These products include a World M.B.A. tour and a service providing strategic advice to business schools, universities and employers.
"By asking universities to respond to surveys for rankings and then asking them to pay for a star rating -- I'm not accusing them of pay-for-play. I don't have any evidence that is happening. But the appearance of conflict is there," Dr. Altbach said.
Ben Sowter, head of the QS Intelligence Unit, which oversees both the ratings and the rankings, said that there was no favoritism in QS's system. "Just because accreditation agencies charge the universities, that doesn't mean they are biased," he said.
"We don't do anything else but higher education," Mr. Sowter said. "So any evidence that anything untoward was going on would be disastrous to our business."
He said that fees did not have any influence on the ratings awarded. "If people were buying stars we wouldn't have so many zero-, one- and two-star institutions that have been through the process," he said. Of the 106 schools that have been rated so far, more than half have been awarded two stars or fewer, he said.
"In a world where Harvard is five stars, why wouldn't you want to be seen as a three-star school?" he added. "Plenty of people are happy to stay in three-star hotels."
Harvard, Cambridge and a handful of other elite universities are awarded five-star ratings without having to pay fees or furnish data, according to QS, which said that those schools were included to help calibrate the ratings.
In the rough-and-tumble world of academic reputations, the QS rankings have long been among the more influential. They started in 2004, a year after officials at Shanghai Jiaotong University published the first global university league table, and 21 years after the magazine U.S. News and World Report published its first guide to "America's Best Colleges." Today the QS list of the "top 700 universities" in the world is read by millions of prospective students, parents, academics and university administrators. Although the two groups are now rivals, until 2009 QS and the Times Higher Education magazine put out a joint ranking.
Both the British newspaper The Guardian and the U.S. News Web site are media partners for the QS global rankings. QS's influence can also be felt at the highest levels of policy. Experts say that some governments will not fund students who wish to study overseas at universities not on the list -- sometimes those not in the top 100.
In an attempt to work their way up the ladder, other countries have engaged in programs of consolidation, forcing smaller schools to group together in an effort to emulate the large U.S. and British research universities that repeatedly dominate the top tier. Some universities rely on rankings to determine whether potential collaborators on research projects or student exchange programs are worthy partners.
Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick in Britain, said that those who made decisions on the basis of rankings were deceiving themselves. "Rankings are all backward looking. So they are swallowing outdated medicine," he said by telephone. "But as an academic I view the QS as the least reliable -- partly because they are the most commercial and partly because they rely more heavily on survey data than the others."
Simon Marginson, from the University of Melbourne's Center for the Study of Higher Education, wrote in September in University World News, an online journal, that QS's methodology "is not sufficiently robust to provide data valid as social science." In an e-mail, Dr. Marginson charged that QS "have twice threatened legal action to intimidate news outlets" that have carried his criticisms of the company.
Mr. Sowter denied that the dispute had reached that stage. "We had a little bit of an altercation," he said, regarding an article by Dr. Marginson in the newspaper The Australian. "The paper gave us a chance to see it beforehand and there were some unfounded allegations, which we disputed and were removed. There was no threat -- just a first shot across the bows."
"The academy likes to focus on the fact that we are a commercial enterprise," Mr. Sowter said. He added that T.H.E. was published by a media company and that Shanghai Jiaotong included itself in its own rankings.
Dr. Hazelkorn said that the controversy over ratings might ultimately be a distraction.
"You have to ask yourself, Why are all the institutions so caught up in this?" she said. "For a country like Ireland, where education and establishing an international presence are hugely important to economic recovery, not being ranked makes you invisible."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.