By Paul Temple
Have you been to a THE Awards bash? If not, it’s worth blagging an invite – your University must be on the shortlist for Herbaceous Border Strategy Team of the Year, or some such, as the business model obviously depends on getting as many universities as possible onto the shortlists, and then persuading each university to cough up to send along as many of its staff as possible. A night out at a posh Park Lane hotel for staff whose work most likely is normally unnoticed by the brass: where’s the harm? I went once – once is enough – mainly I think because our Marketing Director wanted to see if I really possessed a dinner jacket. (She was generous enough to say that I “scrubbed up nicely”.)
I mention this because THE itself seems to be becoming less a publication dealing with higher education news and comment and more a business aimed at extracting cash from higher education institutions, with the weekly magazine merely being a marketing vehicle in support of this aim. The Awards events are the least bothersome aspect of this. The THE rankings – highly valued as “how not to use data” examples by teachers of basic quantitative methods courses – have now entered the realm of parody (“Emerging Economy Universities with an R in their names”) although the associated conferences and double-page advertising spreads in the magazine rake in a nice bit of revenue, one imagines. THE might fairly respond by saying that nobody makes these universities come to their conferences or buy corporate advertising in their pages, and anyway they weren’t the ones who decided that the marketization of higher education worldwide would be a good idea. True, but their profit-making activities give the ratchet another turn, making it harder for universities trying to survive in a competitive market to say no to marketing blandishments, and so helping to move yet more spending away from teaching and research: something regularly lampooned by Laurie Taylor in – remind me where his Poppleton column appears?
The newer, more problematic, development is THE then selling itself as a branding consultancy to the same universities that it is including in its rankings and maybe covering in its news or comment pages. Now it goes without saying that a journal with the standards of THE would never allow the fact that it was earning consultancy fees from a university to influence that university’s position in the rankings that it publishes or how it was covered editorially. It would be unthinkable: not least because it would at a stroke undermine the whole basis of the rankings themselves. Audit firms similarly assure us that the fact that they are earning consultancy fees from a company could never affect the audit process affecting that company. The causes of misleading audit reports – on Carillion, say – should be sought elsewhere, we’re told.
But wait a minute, what’s this on the THE website? “THE is the data provider underpinning university excellence in every continent across the world. As the company behind the world’s most influential university ranking, and with almost five decades of experience as a source of analysis and insight on higher education, we have unparalleled expertise on the trends underpinning university performance globally. Our data and benchmarking tools are used by many of the world’s most prestigious universities to help them achieve their strategic goals.” This seems to be saying that the data used to create the THE rankings are available, at a price, to allow universities to improve their own performance. Leaving aside the old joke about a consultant being someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, referring to the data used to produce rankings and in the following sentence proposing using the same data to help universities achieve their strategic goals (and I’d be surprised if these goals didn’t include rising in the aforementioned rankings) will suggest to potential clients that these two THE activities are linked. Otherwise why mention them in the same breath? This is skating on thin ethical ice.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.