University rankings: 15 ways to prick the bubbles of reputation

From pastoral care to one-to-ones with students, league tables overlook crucial aspects of a good campus, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

June 23, 2016
Nate Kitch illustration (23 June 2016)
Source: Nate Kitch

Reputation is a bubble easily and deservedly pricked.

Bubbly images float and burst in my mind for two reasons. First, I recently attended the premiere of an operatic version of As You Like It (which my university commissioned from the composer Roger Steptoe for the Shakespeare quatercentenary and for which my wife wrote the libretto). In a rare departure from the order of events in the original play, Jacques opened the piece with a recitation of the “Seven Ages of Man”, in which the soldier foolishly targets reputation at the risk of what really matters.

Second, many friends at many universities, including my own, have been bemoaning to me the cascade of their institutions down Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, in which – as in many such lists – reputation is overvalued at the expense of achievement.

If ever I have the misfortune to have to compile rankings, I’ll give reputation no weight. Reputation is part of the past. It should be relegated to oblivion, liberating innovative universities to challenge the old guard. Reputation reflects prejudice. It is self-accreting, like mould or rot, and is evidence of nothing save itself. It thrives on self-advertisement: so does Donald Trump. Reputation penalises decent reticence and self-effacement in favour of the brash and the braggart. Indeed, new or recently founded universities may have to invest in promotional display to affect the rankings. The bubble is superficial, insubstantial and blown on the wind. Its iridescence betokens slime or soap.

Even though THE’s rankings also incorporate objective criteria, they are not alone in ignoring or undervaluing critical features of a good university: one I should like to work in, or support with donations, or which I should have liked to attend as a student, or which I’d have liked my children to apply to. Of the 15 points I’d most want in my questionnaire, none features among criteria currently applied in existing university rankings. Here they are:

1. What do you do about pastoral care? How many students live where a suitably trained professional is on hand to befriend them and help with any problems they want to talk about? How many dedicated pastoral staff do you have per student? How many breakdowns, suicides and stress-related withdrawals or resignations do you have?

2. What initiatives do you have to encourage academics to socialise with students and entertain them in their homes or studies? How often on average does each full-time teacher engage with students on such a friendly basis?

3. How much time do your full-time, tenured teachers spend one-on-one with undergraduate and graduate students (separately computed)? Lose marks for every professor you regard as too grand to make this sort of commitment to undergraduates.

4. What proportion of readers’ requests for library purchases do you fulfil?

5. How many properly equipped, comfortable, well-lit and constantly available places for study have you per student?

6. How do your staff rate your university, according to the good workplace criteria of the relevant trades unions?

7. Do your academic staff have clerical help with form-filling and grant-seeking and, if so, on what scale?

8. Does the management of your campus meet high sustainability targets?

9. How much money, relative to your resources, do you devote to funding research that is commercially unpromising, or unenslaved to “impact” criteria, or independent of business or government, but rather represents your genuine confidence in the spirit and sagacity of your researchers?

10. How many of your students and new graduates do voluntary service for the poor, sick, young or disadvantaged?

11. Do you reserve places for students whose matriculation qualifications may have been unfairly depressed by disadvantage or discrimination, or whose vocations are rather for arts or sports or care of others than for purely academic work? If so, what extra care do you take of them and how much measurable difference, over their time at your university, do you make to their levels of academic attainment?

12. Do you avoid grade inflation? Lose marks for evidence of manipulating the tally.

13. How many of your students engage outside their fields in arts, sports, politics, journalism, social activism or voluntary community or military service? How much money and manpower do you devote to encouraging and facilitating such activities?

14. How many of your students engage outside their fields in learning languages and studying or sampling others’ cultures?

15. Do you have protocols to protect freedom of expression while suitably and sensibly rechannelling clamourers who want to silence dissent, or to desecrate or destroy memorials?

How much difference would it make to the rankings if such criteria wielded due weight? Obviously, rich universities would still be over-represented, but if assessments relating to the use of resources were made in proportion to overall funds, I suspect that bloatedly super-endowed places that hoard their wealth, such as the universities of Harvard and Yale, would be more fairly evaluated. Prominence would adorn criteria that enhance lives: whether students are loved, cared for, improved, and summoned to service, and whether they are part of institutions disinterestedly dedicated to making the world better.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

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