Leader: Do your job well, and you will rise

Despite the tales of jiggery-pokery employed to climb in the league tables, there is no need to sacrifice mission to position

February 18, 2010

There are some shocking stories of the gamesmanship and manipulation that some universities engage in to improve their position in rankings.

At a recent meeting of Times Higher Education's editorial board, convened to discuss the future of this magazine's world university rankings, one vice-chancellor related the tale of an institution that began offering hefty subsidies to attract large numbers of low-quality students from neighbouring countries so it could boost its score on one measure of internationalisation.

There was a furore in the US last year when similar machinations came to light. Speaking at a conference, one researcher gave away a little too much about how her previous institution had climbed the domestic league tables. Although she stopped short of using the word "manipulate", she outlined how the university would work on "every possible indicator" to boost performance - including moving students around to produce flattering staff-to-student ratios and reinterpreting and redefining staff data to better suit various metrics.

Most shockingly, she revealed that the university's officials routinely gave low ratings to all programmes other than their own in a rankings reputation survey.

In another notorious case, Albion College, also in the US, made headlines after it was found to have counted a $30 (£19) donation from an alumnus as five annual gifts of $6 each so as to burnish its fundraising prowess.

There are also the less dishonest but nevertheless deleterious effects of rankings, such as pressing staff to publish in English-language journals, which may lift an institution's profile but may not best serve its local community, or raising entry requirements at universities with real strength in widening access.

Such issues were cited as a key concern in a survey commissioned by THE's new world university rankings data provider, Thomson Reuters. The survey report, published last week, bemoaned the "insidious effects" of league tables that change institutions' strategies, "not to become more effective but to perform well against arbitrary criteria" - counting what is measured instead of measuring what counts, as the English funding council put it in a 2008 report on the effect of rankings.

In light of such concerns, it is imperative that rankers be more rigorous in gathering information, more open about the raw data behind the ranking scores, more sophisticated in the indicators and methodologies they use and more honest and transparent about the limitations of their results. This is what THE is seeking to achieve in its work with Thomson Reuters to produce new world university rankings in 2010 and beyond.

At the same time, institutions have a responsibility to be true to their missions. This is why our main feature this week is so refreshing.

Amanda Goodall, who knows a thing or two about leadership and productivity in higher education, offers 20 tips on how universities can ascend the rankings. And guess what? None of them involves hiding students round the back of the chemistry lab, quintuple counting donations or signing up students en masse from across the border. They are 20 points of simple common sense (hire well, listen to staff, don't flip-flop on strategy, cut red tape, and so on). Vice-chancellors around the world would do well to take them to heart.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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