From where I sit: Discerning palates

February 18, 2010

When Private Eye takes notice, it's a sure sign that something's afoot. So when the satirical magazine ran its recent piece "Brussels is Oxbridge blue", it confirmed that university league tables are big news.

The European Commission is creating a "global, multidimensional" university ranking system. Cherpa, the Consortium for Higher Education and Research Performance Assessment (made up of groups from Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands - including my centre), has been awarded a two-year pilot scheme covering 150 institutions in 40 countries.

Private Eye mischievously links this to poor European performance in the two leading world rankings. Let us agree that universities are complex bodies, difficult to sum up in a few headline scores.

League tables are still experimental yet highly influential. Much is unknown about their effective use, but a recent league table seminar speaker retold conversations with university vice-chancellors reduced to nervous wrecks by the prospect of falling rankings.

The strength of Shanghai Jiao Tong's world ranking is its clarity - measuring world-class research universities in terms of influential publications, Nobel prizes and cited researchers. But although many institutions may aspire to be "world class", this narrow emphasis has a highly undesirable effect.

It leads a drive for conformity in a zero sum game with few winners (there are about 20,000 universities globally), where tiny differences drive substantial ranking changes.

The new ranking's multidimensional approach recognises university missions beyond research - including teaching, regional engagement, international orientation and knowledge transfer.

Vice-chancellors seeking respite from rankings pressure in a drop of wine could reflect on the lessons in their glasses. Wine producers came under enormous pressure from the "ratings movement", notably a wine critic called Robert Parker, who started giving vintages a score out of 100.

The idea was to open up a secretive world shrouded in opaque terminology and enhance the consumer experience. But it also propagated a particular vision of a good wine: strong, oaked, probably New World in origin and available in supermarkets everywhere.

The "flying winemakers", a group of (initially) Australian consultants, helped Old World vineyards meet these standards to garner the best scores and get the best prices for their vintages. Heart-wrenching stories abound of ancient European varieties being grubbed up and replaced with mass plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Europe faced a wine crisis in the 1970s as a result of competition from Australia, Chile and Chardonnay. It tried to solve the problems by standardisation, but this undercut strength, local variety and breeding.

There are many parallels with higher education in light of recent swingeing budget cuts. It would be profoundly regrettable if the "world-class" research university emerged as a standard to which everyone flocked out of fear.

The multidimensional approach attempts to capture diversity by ranking universities against what they should be good at, rather than a single unattainable ideal. We can only hope that a diversity of league tables will promote higher education systems that offer something for everyone's palate and avoid leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.

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