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University Rankings: A Hobby for 'Alpha Males'?

University Rankings: A Hobby for 'Alpha Males'? main image

Rebecca Hughes of the University of Nottingham recently reflected that there is something 'alpha male' about university rankings. QS's Martin Ince spoke to her to find out more about why she thinks this is the case.

Rebecca is chair of applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham, and head of Nottingham’s Centre for English Language Education. She has worked on Nottingham’s international collaboration with other universities and on student exchange, and has a strong interest in how overseas students get information. She stresses that her views are her own, not those of the University of Nottingham. Rebecca’s own research is on spoken language in scholarly communities.

The pleasure of rankings

She begins by stressing that “we are all guilty” of succumbing to the pleasure of university ranking. “Whenever we have something that captures a complex subject simply, like a university ranking, the reader is bound to feel that what they are looking at is stable and authoritative. The key thing about university rankings is their combination of authority, simplicity and worldwide publicity. That makes them very seductive.”

As she says: “Academics are very prone to this. We all want to explain what we are doing to someone and see our marks.”

It is not only universities that get involved in ranking. In the UK, for example, any organisation that receives public money or provides a public service may well appear in some ranking table. This includes schools, libraries and even police forces.

But as Rebecca sees it, the global visibility of the world university rankings makes them especially important and authoritative. This places added emphasis on the criteria that rankings use, partly because internationally mobile students, like other users of world rankings, do not have local knowledge of the universities or countries that they read about in the rankings.

By contrast, Rebecca points out, established academics use rankings in a very different way from potential students. People who research and teach in a specific subject, says Rebecca, know who the good researchers are, where the good teams are, and where the good work is being done. They need rankings far less than aspiring students do.

Greater awareness needed

Rebecca says that despite her comments at Going Global, she is not a declared enemy of university rankings. They are needed, she thinks, because of the rapid growth in student numbers and in international student mobility. “People assume that I am 100% opposed to rankings, which I am not. But I do think that people need to be aware of what they are, what they are not, and what power they have. There is an ethical element to this, because new users who do not come from the traditional university-going middle class need authoritative information.”

Rebecca agrees that rankings have become “part of the process of university recruitment” internationally, and will remain important. However, she has some ideas for improving them. “At the moment, intending students look at rankings. But the people who compile them have never closed the feedback loop by finding out how students use the rankings and how they feel about the institutions they attend once they have finished the course. It might be helpful to bring in some reflective feedback.”

The problem with this idea, admits Rebecca, is that students around the world have very different ideas about what makes a good university course. In western cultures they might think of themselves as consumers or customers, while in Asia they may feel more that it is a privilege to be at university.

Rebecca adds: “It is also hard to get culturally neutral criteria for teaching and learning. People talk about the superb memorisation skills of the Chinese, but maybe that is close to what Americans and Europeans call plagiarism or rote learning. Likewise, western ideas of student autonomy might be regarded in Asia as a way for staff to avoid responsibility.”

National and international competition

Rebecca adds that university ranking is only one way for institutions to identify themselves in a competitive market. Bodies such as the Russell Group of elite UK universities, or the C9 in China, are important to universities that want to want to join with similar institutions and mark themselves out from the competition.

She says: “Universities try to carve out an identity by joining these groups. In future they might also try producing a self-evaluation which reflects what they are good at. There is no one platonic ideal of a university, after all. Some are global, some are locally embedded, and we need to have ways of capturing the values that universities embody.”

While academic staff are not big users of world rankings, some of their most enthusiastic readers are university managers, and Rebecca thinks she knows why. “Rankings have a unique appeal for university managers because they are a simple and compelling scorecard. This makes them a useful management tool for explaining to academics what a university is trying to achieve. Managers can say that the university wants to be higher in these rankings, and point to ways of getting there. The issue, of course, is whether this approach is replacing more thoughtful and strategic thinking about a university’s role.”

An ideal ranking?

Given these problems, might there ever be university rankings that Rebecca would find acceptable? She says that the key is to find measures that do not ignore established forms of excellence, and which do not drive institutions to take on new values.

“Academics are competitive by nature,” she says. “They are always going to be attracted to tables where there is a single spine on which universities are listed from number one downwards. And there will always be jockeying for position on that spine. But the need for students and their advisers to find the best place for a specific subject points to the scope for a bigger diversity of rankings, which would dilute the importance of any single system.”

The problem is that it is hard to separate out specific disciplines from the cultures in which they are embedded, something that Rebecca has studied in her own research. The AHELO and CHERPA ranking projects have both agreed that economics and engineering are two subjects in which students might be expected to learn roughly the same things wherever they study in the world.

Rebecca agrees that engineering is a good choice, because it might tend to have globally-agreed quality assurance standards. Even so, learning outcomes in any subject will vary in different cultures because the student experience of teaching and learning will differ. And of course, things get far trickier once you start thinking about such culturally dependent topics as art or literature.

As Rebecca says: “Imagine yourself as the parent of a one-child family in China. You are about to make a huge investment in university education for that one child. To get the best result, you want to balance the top-level reputation of the university they attend with other things: their reputation in a specific subject, and their level of pastoral care and student service. These are quite distinct from the university’s position as a research institution. So alongside existing measures, it would be helpful to see indicators such as support for students with disabilities.”

Greater transparency

Students and their advisers would be able to use a cleverer range of indicators in new and more subtle ways. As Rebecca points out: “It was much easier for me to find out what I needed to know about the hotel I was staying in for the Going Global conference than it is to find out about a university that Nottingham might partner with. In the Web 2.0 era, there are new ways to shape and share information. Institutions need to be brave enough to let information about them to be used in novel ways. I would say that the lived experience of students is one of the most important things that future rankings should reflect more fully.”

This means more discussion of what happens at a university. Nobody wants a world in which professors get top marks by setting easy exams. After all, says Rebecca, students have strong opinions, but they do not know it all yet.

This new rankings logic, she says, could help universities regain some of their self-confidence. They would have solid evidence about what they do well, alongside pointers to areas for improvement. And the measures in such rankings would be consonant with their values and their missions.

Rebecca adds that she expects to see rapid change in higher education, in the UK and around the world, in which rankings will have an important role.

“The expansion of Indian and Chinese higher education capacity will be one major factor, while changes to the funding system in the UK will be very important here. There are also likely to be many more public/private partnerships in higher education. And in Europe, many countries will run out of 18-year-olds.

"So there will be an increase in the share of people from non-Anglophone backgrounds wanting higher education. That will mean that quality has to be maintained despite cultural differences, which will mean more demand for rankings. My point is that as rankings get more important, they have to be carried out in an ethically-engaged way. Rankings are undermined if the universities in them do not match up to the expectations students may have of a highly-ranked institution.”

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