The “LOOMING DISASTER” for Higher Education: How Commercial Rankers Use Social Media to Amplify and Foster Affect

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Despite the ubiquity of global university rankings coverage in media and academia, a concerted attempt to investigate the role of social media in ranking entrepreneurship remains absent. By drawing on an affect lens, we critically examine the social media activities of two commercial rankers: Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd (QS). Based on an analysis of THE’s Twitter feed and QS’ Facebook page between January and June 2020, we illuminate how rankers use social media for affective storytelling to frame and sell their expertise within global HE. First, we demonstrate how THE uses Twitter to engage an audience of institutions, governments, and administrators, reinforcing universities’ increasingly aggressive behavior as market competitors. Next, we show how QS engages a student-oriented audience on Facebook, furthering the role of students as consumers. Before and during the COVID pandemic, we observed that both rankers amplified and mobilized precarity associated with performance and participation, selling hope to targeted audiences to market their expertise as solutions—a strategy that remained amidst the global pandemic. Based on our observation of the front stage of rankers’ social media activities, we argue that rankers’ deployment of social media as a form of affective infrastructure is conducive to further sustaining, diffusing, and normalizing rankings in HE globally.


This article was originally published in Higher Education in 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-021-00762-z

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This scholarship is part of the Chapman University COVID-19 Archives.

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