Australia dropped in the Times Higher Education rankings. So what?

The Guardian, Friday October 4 2013. Read the original here.

There are many reasons for serious concern about the future of Australian universities. But the collective drop of local institutions in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings this week certainly isn’t one of them.

Ranking tables are a major instrument of the marketised, university-as-business ideology embraced by higher education. Glossing over the diverse socio-economic, cultural and intellectual contexts of the world’s universities, league tables project them all onto a single plane, obscuring the multiplicity of purposes that institutions of higher learning serve.

Quibbles over particular aspects of rankings’ methodology are regularly aired. These miss the point that something as diffuse and subjective as a university’s “quality” simply cannot be measured.

There is no single answer to the question of how good a university is. Universities are like films, political organisations, golf courses or nations: there is no fact of the matter about which is better. This is because their rationale lies in goals whose standards are contested and variable – knowledge-generation through research, and education through teaching.

Each goal is a matter not of objective measurement, but of evaluative debate. Whether you think knowledge has been generated depends on a judgement about the status of the idea or theory produced. If it’s not true or valid, it’s not knowledge – and even when it is, there’s the further crucial question of its significance.

Likewise, whether you think education has occurred rests on a complex assessment of whether the learner has changed in intellectually desirable ways. Even outside the humanities, the answers to these questions necessarily vary depending on who is giving them. No intellectual community commands unanimity on these questions. This diversity is embedded within an ideological and material setting – the power-structures of academic disciplines and competition for academic and student places – that often leads it to be strongly disavowed by the academic communities themselves. That does not make it any less real.

As a result, surveys like THE’s need to substitute other measures as proxies for university “quality”. The survey notably uses funding income, citation counts and article output, among other criteria. But these measures make it impossible to differentiate good research projects from merely popular, successful or well-funded ones. That the two do not line up is demonstrated by the entire history of research in both the sciences and humanities.

Notoriously, THE also appeals to institutional reputation as a major part of universities’ score: academics are asked to list the institutions they consider the best in research or teaching. But this measure just tells us about what a minority of academics – those who complete the survey – think. Remarkably, it entirely fails to consult students or alumni. How a university is scored by outsiders in the highly abstract, ideologically infused and symbolic arena of a rankings system tells us little about how far it concretely serves the particular purposes of its own actual students, researchers, and community – especially since a proper judgement of that can often only be made years afterwards.

That university league tables are taken so seriously speaks volumes about the travesty of the academy under neoliberalism. Academics should treat university surveys with the same disdain they show for top-ten lists of books or films.

Higher education should be directed at the intellectual empowerment and emancipation of society through teaching and research. Those goals are essentially contested and unmeasurable. Attempting to reduce them to a single mould is inherently contrary to the value of diversity that should be a necessary feature of the way universities are conceived.

A basic inequity perpetuated in higher education is the fiction that the narrow quantitative discriminations made between students – this student got 64%, this one 66% – are meaningful. Given the prevalence of this fiction, it’s no surprise that similar thinking has jumped into the evaluation of institutions themselves.

I always tell students that while the qualitative annotations on their essays are meaningful, the ranking represented by the numerical mark should be treated with significant caution. Its main rationale, after all, is to contribute to differentiating between candidates for the purposes of their entry into the labour market or other competitive arenas. In all of these contexts, cooperation rather than competition would be a more human and ultimately far more efficient norm. It is time that we started accepting the same logic in the case of the way we “mark” universities themselves.

There is doubtless consternation in the chancelleries of Australian universities in the wake of this year’s ranking. As always happens in such situations, the internal hand-wringing of academic managers will presumably be accompanied by high-minded public statements of the shortcomings of league tables as real measures of institutional worth.

Those kinds of declarations are frequently insincere but always valuable. To the extent that local universities’ depressed scores prompt this kind of official reaction, they should be wholeheartedly welcomed.

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