Ranking Universities

By August 17, 2012Education, Politics, Society

It’s is chest-thumping time again in higher education, with the release of the new rankings from a Chinese university that got into this business a few years ago. Many Australians, even in higher education,  see almost everything in terms of competition: how well are we doing (on anything at all) compared with universities in other countries? Internally, how is my university doing in comparison with others in our country?

The answer is cloudy. What are we comparing? What would a good university be like? I think we need to start with that. And everyone could have a different answer, which would flow from one’s real interest in the university. An intending undergraduate will have a range of criteria with which to judge universities, and her parents may have a few more. If she had a wise mentor in her senior years at high school, he or she may have a few more still.

There is no one right model of a good university, one that we should all admire. Every university has its own setting, its own history, its own advantages and its own problems. Within any university its own staff will make their own judgments, and they might well differ from one part of the university to another. Students will differ from staff, about some things, anyway. If you inhabit one, is it better in some meaningful way than it was at this time last year? How would you tell? Would your colleagues agree? Compared to five years ago?

After fifty years in higher education I decided that ranking universities was fatuous in the extreme, and was useful only for PR people, who need something like this to talk about. How does a university get to be highly ranked? Well, it helps to be old, rich and involved in research, especially in medical research. Why are these important criteria? Well, they’re not, if you are most intending undergraduates. Much more, if you are an intending graduate student.

But these criteria have the great advantage that they are interconnected, and relatively easily measurable. Age of foundation, in Australia, anyway, is highly correlated both with long-standing activity in research and with possessing a medical school, which means more research activity. Isn’t research important, you ask? Well, some of it is, in retrospect. But in higher education ‘research’ has come to have an almost mystical quality of godliness that only academics really understand.

I don’t want to knock it, partly because my higher education life was built on doing well at it, and partly because I think it is good for academics to find out more about the discipline that provides their living – and doing research is an excellent means of doing so.  But we all overdo its importance. Even more important is good teaching, a supportive environment in which students are encouraged to learn and helped to do so, and really good relationships between teachers and students. To make that possible requires small classes, good libraries and an emphasis within the university culture on excellence in teaching and learning, not on research. All that costs money, and over the last couple of decades money has been transferred from teaching to research, not the other way.

Today research rules, OK? You can measure research output, research expenditure and the standing of research staff pretty easily, but it is really difficult to measure good teaching, and even more to measure good learning.

Even when measuring the easy things, like research output, the rankings of universities can change quite a lot between one year and the next. What that tells you is that rankings don’t have much reliability or validity. What should you do with them? Ignore them.

Oh, and what was the top-ranked Australian university? No, it wasn’t the ANU. Does it matter? No.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Owl says:

    A more revealing question to ask than ‘what makes a good university?’ is ‘what services do universities provide that cannot be provided better some other way by someone else?’

    The emergence of massive open online courses, such as Coursera, MITx and Udacity, has undermined the traditional university’s basis of competitive advantage.

    If potential first year student Jane Public can find course material and accreditation provided online, for free, and from a university ranked higher (by whomever) than is her local, there’s really no choice to be made. She can already get more teaching and learning support from other students in other countries online than she can from her overworked and underpaid lecturers and tutors.

    Prediction: Big city universities will increasingly move out of undergraduate education and focus on where they can provide a demonstrable and unique value-add – as providers of post-graduate research training. Regional universities will remodel themselves as learning hubs for courseware provided by others.

    • Don says:

      Yes, always assuming that all students are there solely to gain credentials. But the majority are still there in part for social context, and because it is the current way. There were credential-seeking evening students when I was an undergraduate in the 1950s, but they too enjoyed the interaction with others.

      Your point about the hub is stronger in science units, I think, but even there there are choices that have to be made in what goes in, what is assumed knowledge, and what can safely be left out or postponed.

  • John Grant says:

    You won’t be surprised to learn that the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU has since congratulated staff of the University for an improvement of the University’s ranking by six places and for placing the ANU top in Australia “when we adjust to take size into account.”

    • Don says:

      Quite unsurprised. How, I wonder, do we adjust to take size into account? Sounds a bit like those who want to show how well Australia did at the Games, once you adjust for population …

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