It’s your score in the long game that counts

As tactics to maximise rankings become common knowledge and fluctuation diminishes, universities will re-focus on a diversifying array of missions, says Merlin Crossley

April 20, 2017
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When university rankings first appeared in 2003, many in the sector were uneasy. I can even recall various vice-chancellors agreeing not to comment publicly on them for fear of giving them undue prominence or influence.

That didn’t work. But the world hasn’t ended.

Undoubtedly there have been some perverse or unintended outcomes. For instance, we’ve seen money spent on gaming the systems, a convergence of university strategic plans reducing diversity in the sector and a favouring of research investments over teaching. On the plus side, as we all try to maximise our performance – and remain attractive to international students and staff – the tables ensure that we keep pushing ourselves.

But as time goes on, something else is happening that is seldom discussed. With every new table and passing year the excitement is diminishing. The reason for this is that little changes. Over longer time periods, we can see that the universities in Asia are moving up, the universities in Europe are probably underappreciated, and the rest of us are static or in relative decline. But the annual message is one of stability.

At a local level in Australia, it is usually the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University near the top, the rest of the east coast Group of Eights follow, then the universities of Western Australia and Adelaide, which are a bit smaller and therefore lower on several volume measures. Next, we sometimes find the Australian Technology Network universities such as Curtin, the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Technology Sydney, and other institutions that are also prominent in research and offer engineering or medicine such as Newcastle, Wollongong and Tasmania. The private universities, Notre Dame and Bond, lead in the Australian teaching-based tables.

In the long term – meaning five years or more – the trends are important indicators of changing performance. But, on an annual basis, fluctuations in the rankings are more likely to be driven by incorrect reporting, anomalies in the data, small staff movements or reclassifications, mergers and small variations in student load. In that context, one’s excitement is easy to contain.

At the same time, the extensive information in the tables is probably becoming more reliable as everyone catches up on the ways to game the numbers to the maximum. Even now, I think that most people would agree that Harvard University, which mostly sits at the top of the rankings, really is an outstanding institution, and, locally, I respect the universities that are performing well – even as I churlishly point out the various nuances of the different systems that account for the positionings.

My hunch is that the very top universities have already largely ceased whatever strategic planning they might previously have gone in for to maintain their rankings. Those positions are now so solid that they are self-reinforcing: top staff and students seek out these institutions because of their rankings. And my hope is that, ultimately, they will cease to be the only models worth emulating. Instead, we will begin to see more divergence as universities pursue a variety of approaches – offering both staff and students more choice.

We’ll still make strategic decisions with one eye to our performance in league tables, but it will matter less as it becomes apparent that quick wins are increasingly difficult. We will still invest in the recruitment of excellent staff, for instance – and I, for one, am pleased that the tables incentivise extraordinary investment in extraordinary people – but we won’t buy in to excess. And, hopefully, the long game of genuinely pushing ourselves, holding ourselves to account on everyday excellence and productivity and adhering to our values, will become more important.

As these distinct institutional personalities evolve, they will come to define universities more comprehensively than their positions in league tables – and they will tend to attract staff and students who conform to the philosophy.

The tables will eventually become like those mystifying lists that record the world’s most liveable cities. We Australians will be pleased if we see Melbourne or Sydney there, and worried if they are pushed aside by Auckland. But there won’t be that much we can do about it. I certainly won’t be moving to New Zealand if there is a sudden “correction”.

Merlin Crossley is deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

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