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The Question of Rankings: Once More with Feeling

A young professor in Malaysia told us that “The Ministry of Higher Education tells us that we should all publish in English-language international journals”. A Vice-Chancellor in the UK told a group of senior leaders that, “We don’t like the rankings, but they appeal to our Governing Boards in that they are a simple way for non-specialists to understand higher education”. Another colleague remarked when speaking of one of the best-known ranking organizations, “Rankings are a huge money maker. If you are ‘chosen’ to host a results announcement event it will cost you a huge amount of money including expenses for all speakers and more”. A senior University leader in a country in the global South said, “Rankings are responsible for driving a colonizing approach to curriculum in higher education”.

All of us who work in the complex world of higher education are interested in doing good work. But when it comes to understanding excellence, there are diverse ways that quality can be understood. The criteria for excellence which are measured by the majority of the global ranking businesses may work reasonably well for richly endowed universities in wealthy countries but the vast majority of universities in the global South and many fine smaller regional universities in all parts of the world are consistently and publicly relegated as backwaters of quality. One is reminded of the sign at the entrance to Hades in Milton’s Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”.

Let us examine the various statements made in the paragraph above. The long-term impact of the best Malaysian scholars publishing most of their work in UK based or other English language international journals, instead of in Malay language journals or even national English medium journals, will mean that the Malay language itself will gradually decline as a language of sophisticated intellectual exchange. It will cease to grow and renew itself in exchange with the world and with ideas. Not only will non-English language scholars work at a constant disadvantage to native English-speaking scholars, but they will lose capacity for complex disciplinary discourses in their own national languages. Rankings reinforce colonized curricula and undermine the extraordinary richness of Indigenous and ancient languages.

The UK Vice-Chancellor who laments the appeal of rankings to her governing board, is not against excellence what so ever. But she would be interested in systems of measurement that were developmental, that were designed in a way to allow for any university to measure itself across variables that that particular university found most valuable. Not all universities need to produce Nobel Prize winners. They may value contributions to the local economy, to the resolution of racial injustice, to the greening of the environment, to the number of students working on social justice issues and so forth. What she does not need is a ranking framework developed sometimes by money-making ranking organizations that set the criteria for all universities and which will permanently relegate most universities to second class identities.

A recent announcement told us that Times Higher Education has been sold to private equity firm Inflexion, becoming a stand-alone business for the first time. Inflexion is a leading London-based private equity firm, whose portfolio of companies includes Chambers and Partners, provider of data, rankings and practice guides for the legal sector. So, the rankings business in many fields, not just in higher education, is highly profitable. And as with any business, there is a need to constantly broaden the markets, and develop new products. Building a global competition that pits university heavy -weights against smaller regional and local universities may not be fair.

And finally, to return to the questions of epistemic justice, knowledge democracy and decolonization of higher education. This is a huge discourse now sweeping through almost all parts of the higher education world. The demands of South African students for a non-apartheid curriculum in recent years brought the issue to the attention of many. The students noted that while the political system had rejected apartheid, the curriculum in their universities had remained dominated by white European scholars. In Canada, our focus is on indigenizing the higher education curriculum in response to the 500 years of epistemicide as settler knowledge systems suffocated the knowledge systems of the Indigenous people who were here before.

The metrication of academic life with research frameworks, teaching frameworks, knowledge impact frameworks and more raise deep questions for the vast majority of universities in the world that will never be an Oxford or a Harvard. But the questions remain:
What is to be done? Could countries opt out of global rankings? Could individual universities opt out? Could a developmental self-directed system of building quality be developed?

Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon

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