Who and what gets left out of world university rankings?

When universities chase ‘excellence’, argues Michelle Stack, ‘big capital’ calls the tune and some students go hungry

February 26, 2016
Use of foodbanks by students is on the rise
Source: iStock

I often wondered why higher education institutions became implicated in media-business rankings. The major rankings that I analysed for my book, Global University Rankings and the Mediatization of Higher Education, use indicators that tell us more about the wealth of an institution than the quality of students’ educational experience. Rankings have been part of a seismic shift in determining the mission of universities, a shift in who and what is seen as showing evidence of excellence. They play a pivotal role in the dramatic increase in higher education institutions’ spend on marketing and public relations.

I started to write my book on rankings two years ago, and since that time the number of issues plaguing institutions – including top-ranked HEIs – seems only to be increasing. In the US, 157 colleges are under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault. Too often students report academic leadership being more concerned about the institution’s reputation than the safety of students. But how an institution attempts to deal with systemic violence is not included in determining whether a university is excellent at a world-class level. 

Ranked institutions have been caught trying to game the system to increase rankings. Others have encouraged applications from students they know will not be admitted. The more students an institution rejects, the higher it scores on student selectivity, and this too helps with rankings. Peer reputation surveys and surveys of employers and high school counsellors are important to many rankers. Universities with the cash respond by sending out expensive materials to get their name out at the right time to the right people (those filling out the survey).

As I articulate my argument, I can hear and appreciate some of the rebuttals from those who stand by rankings as an answer. Ranking supporters argue that they provide students with objective data to make choices. The problem is that even if data collected were objective, the vast majority of the world’s students do not have the capital to choose, and rankings amplify inequities.

Top-ranked universities bring economic and local/national capital, and this means that governments often reallocate money to give preferential treatment to highly ranked institutions, or those with the potential to be highly ranked. The majority of students go to HEIs that have a lower ranking or no ranking. A high ranking begets more resources, and a low ranking, or none, often means fewer resources. 

Rankings are big business. They sell papers, bring students to the top-ranked institutions, and can result in a decline in students for those that don’t make the cut. Rankings are integrated with a $4.4 trillion (£3.16 trillion) education industry, and often rankings are just one of a suite of products that drive up the cost of education. Corporate interests are consequential for research. The responsibility to do research that offers an alternative to the present is too often silenced or marginalised – whether it is independent research that points to the dangers of a drug, or that shows the damage of big corporate polluters, or that shows the epidemic of rape cultures on university campuses.

Universities should be relevant and responsive to their communities – local, national and international – but major rankings emphasise one stakeholder: big capital. What is missing in world university rankings is everyone else – the 97 to 99 per cent. Too often, while universities spend money to get into or move up the rankings, tuition goes up. Students’ unions in many countries report a growing number of students using food banks. The wealth of a few is based on the increasing poverty of the many.

A narrow concept of excellence limits the ability of universities to be relevant to the communities that take care of them and provide them with research participants, land, tax breaks and grants. Major world rankings do not look at how a university responds to community needs and interests. 

To think of universities in the same way that we think of corporations is to lose sight of the purpose of universities in expanding the imagination of what is and could be. There are alternatives. As a planet we are faced with pressing issues, and to solve them we need to connect excellence, equity and justice. We should expect universities to provide evidence, and open and substantive debate about the aims of education and issues of equity and ethics should be firmly integrated in those aims. Currently, major world rankings are ill-equipped to be useful in this debate.

In closing, I would like to thank Times Higher Education for inviting me to write a blog to explain my research on ranking. I was not paid for this article.  

Michelle Stack is associate professor in the department of educational studies, University of British Columbia, and author of Global University Rankings and the Mediatization of Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan).

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