by Paul Temple
I blogged a while back on THE’s transformation from a publisher of news and opinions on higher education to a producer and vendor of rankings data. Every issue of the magazine it seems now comes with the latest rankings publication, often thicker than the parent publication. The latest one that I’ve seen gives the “2019 University Impact Rankings”. You’ve got to admire the ingenuity of THE’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Phil Baty, and his team in dreaming up ever-more varied ways of ranking universities – and the cleverness of these latest rankings, examining contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is that a wider range of universities than just the usual suspects can claim their place in the sun. So expect to see Kyung Hee University in South Korea boasting of its top world ranking under SDG 11, “Sustainable cities and communities”.
The UN has developed 17 SDGs taking in a wide sweep of worthwhile objectives, including peace, health, welfare, equalities, sustainability, and more. Probably all universities contribute in different ways to many of these goals, but how should their varying achievements in this field be ranked? Well, the difficulty of adding incommensurables together to produce a single number in order to create a league table has never so far got in the way of people with a ranking product to sell. So you won’t be surprised to hear that it turned out to be a piece of cake to add a university’s contribution to, say, “good health and wellbeing”, to a number reflecting its work on “gender equality”, to its number on “climate action”, to compare that total number to a number from a university on the other side of the world which says it contributes to a different set of SDGs – and to come up with a league table. (The University of Auckland came top, since you ask.)
As I said in my earlier blog about the THE annual university awards, you might think, where’s the harm in universities doing a bit of mild boasting about their contributions to perfectly worthwhile aims? Well, I think there are a couple of problems. One was brought home to me recently at a graduation ceremony, where the speech by the presiding member of the UCL brass was almost entirely about how well UCL and its constituent parts had done in the recent QS rankings. This both misleads families and friends, and probably many graduates, into thinking that rankings are some sort of unarguable, football league-style assessment, with a university’s work being counted in the same way as a team’s goals. But it also misses an opportunity to tell your own institutional story – “we are a terrific university, and this is why” – rather than sub-contracting the job to someone with a commercial axe to grind. What happened to institutional self-confidence?
The other problem is that the more universities appear to buy in to rankings like these, the more THE and other rankers are encouraged to offer consultancies based on their rankings. This is dangerous territory. Rather than claiming, however implausibly, that their consultancy services are entirely separate from their rankings activities, THE goes out of its way to link them. Imagine then a marketing director of a university in difficulties of some sort reading the several full-page ads for THE’s consultancy services in the Impact Rankings publication, with their offers of “expert guidance” and “tailored analysis for advancement” drawing on THE’s “deep expertise” with THE experts becoming “an extension of…universities’ marketing departments”. It wouldn’t be surprising if they thought, “Hmmm, maybe working with these guys might help us move up some of these rankings – at least we’d understand more about how they’re put together and we might then make some changes in what we do….”
So sets of methodologically worthless data become turned into income streams for rankings producers because university leaderships take them seriously, which in turn will drive universities’ policy-making in the direction of moving up one league table or another, which in turn will encourage rankers to produce even more league tables in order to exert more power. How on earth did we allow this to happen?
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.