Rankings swagger seen as a double-edged sword

Universities fuel governments’ appetites for metrics when they brag about their rankings, summit hears

July 23, 2019

Universities are playing with fire when they overegg their achievements in rankings, a Hong Kong conference has heard.

Administrators told the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit that universities risked inflaming governments’ fervour for “measuring everything” when they proclaimed their achievements in the latest league tables.

Ghent University rector Rik Van de Walle said academic leaders had an obligation to put their rankings results in a wider context. “You have to explain what it is,” he told the forum at The City University of Hong Kong.

“[There are] a lot of rankings [and they tell you] nothing more than what they are measuring. [It] is our responsibility to tell this message to the government. We have to say it and we have to repeat it.”

Rianne Letschert, rector magnificus at Maastricht University, said university administrators risked damaging their own cause when they used rankings results to enhance their profiles, because governments had a penchant for “using the rankings against us”.

Cecilia Lu, of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, said that the use of metrics risked eroding trust between academia and the government.

She said that the sector needed insights in how to “responsibly educate government officials in using the metrics correctly” so that mechanisms such as performance evaluation did not undermine academics’ ability to do “transformative” research and teaching.

Former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price said that rankings fostered unhelpful competition among universities. “Each one wants to do better than the next,” he added.

“The ranking system is deeply flawed and it’s generally negative for the sector. There are better ways of using those metrics appropriately.”

Dr Price said that the “ordinal” nature of university rankings, with performers graded individually, tended to mask genuine progress. He said that universities could improve their teaching, research and reputation scores and notch more publications and citations than ever before, and still slide 10 places in a league table.

“You can improve year on year on each of the criteria and still go down in the rankings, because someone else has equalled you. Your position in the ranking is not necessarily a measure of whether you’ve done better or worse.”

An approach akin to hotels’ one-to-five stars system would be preferable, he said, because universities with impact, reputation and publication rates typical of top 200 universities deserved to be recognised as such. “What students and governments need to know is that you are in a certain band. There should be no limit to how many universities are in that band if they meet the criteria," he argued.

Anders Karlsson, vice-president of global strategic networks with Elsevier, agreed that deteriorating rankings performance could jeopardise universities. He said that they were part of the knowledge economy and governments wanted to be able to evaluate their contributions.

Dr Karlsson said that for “time-stressed” people such as politicians, single numbers were easy to digest. But the data underpinning rankings contained detailed information about universities’ accomplishments. “The challenge is to go beyond that number [in] telling the story of the contributions,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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