What’s So Great about University Rankings?

Posted on June 13, 2016 in Education Debates

TheTyee.ca – News – UBC prof’s book says rankings undermine education quality, distort priorities.
8 Jun 2016.   By Katie Hyslop

As an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s educational studies department, Michelle Stack was briefly excited when news broke this spring that UBC’s Faculty of Education was ranked number one in Canada and ninth in the world by QS World University Rankings.

But then she thought better of it.

“Really, I don’t think it means anything,” she said. “I think the university that I work at is a very good university. There’s lots of us that care very deeply about social justice and equity, and do good work. That doesn’t mean we’re better than SFU.”

Stack isn’t just being humble. The rankings seem arbitrary, she said, with universities rising and falling for reasons that are unclear even to academics like her who study the rating systems.

But most important, she said, the ranking criteria are biased toward western values and ignore student satisfaction, safety, diversity and economic and social justice.

Stack explored the issues in her new book, Global University Rankings and the Mediatization of Higher Education. She sat down with The Tyee to talk about the meaninglessness of rankings, how they impact education and how to end a system that’s biased towards wealthy western universities.

Tyee: What are the global university rankings?

Michelle Stack: “ARWU [Academic Ranking of World Universities], the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, and the QS. And the QS and Times Higher Ed were one ranking, and then they had a ‘divorce,’ which I had fun writing about in my book.

“They have a lot of spin-off products. So, for example, now they have national rankings and regional rankings, they have very expensive conferences, they provide advice. So a lot of universities now have managers that manage rankings. So it’s a big business.

“Times Higher Ed, they use just a couple of databases for tracking research productivity, which means journal articles. So the Times Higher Ed ranking uses Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters, they have the news service; they have the database, [they have] Web of Science; they have what’s called InCites that they say [are] to help universities make good decisions about tenure and promotion.”

What do rankings mean for universities?

“It costs a lot of money to get up in the rankings. For example, [for] one of the rankings, ARWU, it’s imperative to have Nobel Prize winners on your faculty. Well, Nobel Prize winners cost money to bring in — a lot of money.

“In a lot of countries now, they are looking at rankings to decide which universities to give resources to. So what happens is the universities that are already serving the middle-upper class, they get more resources. The universities that are serving the vast majority can end up with less resources.

“I get where university leaders are coming from. They’re saying, ‘We have to make up for public cutbacks.’ So there’s public cutbacks for funding universities — how do you make up for that? You bring in international students that you can charge a whole lot more money to.

“When a university is highly ranked, then industry wants to partner with them, international students want to go there and then that means that university has more money. It can often mean they charge more tuition.

“The pressure on rankings can end up influencing who’s hired, who’s given tenure, what students are seen as high value.

“Part of it, too, is looking at ‘where are our priorities here?’ The number of food banks on university campuses across North America is skyrocketing.

“Top-ranked universities are not poor, but often they don’t seem to have money for making sure that they’re truly accessible, and that they’re engaged with the communities that support them.”

What’s the media got to do with it?

“A lot of [global rankings] are media generated, created by media companies…. They’re major sellers for them.

“If you look at how much media pickup they get, they get a lot. One thing that fascinated me about the QS is the Guardian, such a prestigious paper, covers the QS and when you click on methodology, it takes you to the QS site. [Laughs] It’s a business company!

“It’s a weird thing that happens with numbers. I remember when I was looking at the Fraser Institute [kindergarten to Grade 12] rankings, and I was talking to a really well-known news editor [for a] major paper. I was asking about the Fraser Institute, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s a right-wing think-tank.’

“I said, ‘So why do you cover the Fraser Institute rankings?’

“‘Well those are objective,’ he said.

“I said, ‘But you just told me it’s a right-wing think institute.’

“‘Well, they’re numbers, they’re objective.’ And it was such a window into how this sort of magical thing can happen, even though if you think about it just in terms of logic — how can you think this is objective if it’s coming out of a right-wing think institute?”

What’s the impact of rankings on education?

“Rankings look at things like the number of articles written only in English journals. So really the vast majority of scholarship, written by scholars in other languages, aren’t captured by the rankings.

“I heard from colleagues in China saying they’re being told to write in English about issues of concern to western audiences so they could get published in western-dominated journals, because their university wanted to get up in the rankings. And that was disturbing, because they were writing less about things of national concern.

“And then here, I see community-engaged scholars sometimes getting penalized. Community-engaged scholarship takes time and it’s not counted.

“My main concern is if university leaders become obsessed with rankings, then they become obsessed with branding, they become obsessed with how many articles our academics are getting in top-ranked journals, which is a bit of a racket itself. And then what that means is I think attention is taken away from issues that need a lot of focus.

“Universities are increasingly seen as a trade product…. If we just see universities in that way, then what do we lose? We lose universities as a place to expand difficult conversations, and to talk about what are different ways we can be with each other. And how do we survive on this planet?

“It narrows knowledge at a time when, with the Internet and resources, we could be expanding and having really interesting, expanded conversations.”

What’s your advice for students and parents who use rankings to pick universities?

“Ask questions about what’s important to you. Is it important to know your professors? Is it important to know where the university invests? Is diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, social class [important]?

“There are multi-track rankings where students can put in what they’re looking at, what they want in an education.

“In the States, it’s staggering the number of universities where students have had to go to the courts [regarding on-campus sexual assaults] because their universities weren’t doing anything. These are top-ranked, Ivy League universities: so how does that happen?… It doesn’t get docked in the rankings.

“When I was a kid I went to a community college for two years, and there was no shame in that.

“When I talk to students who are embarrassed about going to colleges or to universities that aren’t highly ranked, I think, ‘What a terrible shame that they think they’re somehow less because they’re not going to UBC or U of T. I think that’s unfortunate, and it’s social-class based.”

If university rankings aren’t so great, how do we get away from them?

“Just before the economic recession in 2008, you had a group of academics in North America and in Asia that opposed the rankings… What’s interesting is they talked about how problematic they are, how we have to stand up to them. The rankings haven’t changed much since then, but [academics] kind of go quiet in terms of resistance, and I think part of it was increasing competition for students, cuts in public funding, feeling like they had no choice. So it either takes all the academic leaders to show leadership and say no.

“It’s pretty risky — everything becomes visibility. International students, when they’re asked, for the most part they look at the rankings to decide what university to go to in North America or Europe. But if a top-ranked university, if a Stanford or Harvard had the courage to step out of it, it could have quite an impact. They’re a legacy institution that could probably weather the storm [laughs]. Whether they will is a whole other question.”

Find Michelle Stack on Twitter at @MichelleLStack, and learn more about her book here < http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137475947 >

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