27 September 2023

New ideas to counter university rankings fatigue

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With the university world ranking system often compromised and in decline, John Aubrey Douglass* suggests a different model that allows academic institutions to play a greater role in the societies they serve.

For decades many universities have focused on global rankings to drive academic planning and resource allocation — often under pressure from their Education Ministries to climb up those rankings.

In turn, rankings companies have built profitable businesses, accompanied by a cavalcade of books and articles that reinforce the value of their rankings.

In this myopic race, many universities have lost their way, hindering innovation in areas such as student learning and creative forms of research.

In recent times, however, there has been a significant movement by Ministries and universities to devalue university rankings.

A number of high-profile law schools in the United States recently announced they would no longer participate in one of the commercial rankings.

Dutch universities have begun a move away from using rankings and citation indexes for evaluating performance.

China has done something similar in its recent Ministerial edicts.

Some universities, usually institutions with previously established international profiles, are refusing to participate in rankings.

They are not supplying information requested by commercial rankers, many of whom find some way to find basic information, like the number of faculty, to keep them in their ranking products.

The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a disrupter, with the rush to online courses and a dissipation of the normal life of universities.

The war in Ukraine and increased international tensions have also brought the international strategies of universities into question.

All of these factors provide an opportunity to rethink and broaden the mission and activities of universities in much of the world.

I want to advocate that universities should explore alternative models, including what I have called the New Flagship University (NFU).

This combines both familiar notions of a university’s teaching, research and public service mission with innovations that seek both internal reforms and expanded engagement with society.

In this quest, international standards of excellence focused largely on research productivity are not ignored, but are framed as only one goal towards supporting a university’s larger social purpose.

There are two main roles for global rankings of universities besides generating income for the rankers.

First as consumer guides for prospective students; second, as indicators for Ministries of the quality and productivity of a nation’s universities, often the dominant force in resource allocation.

The good thing is that this has led to incentives that have reshaped the internal culture of many national university systems and institutions.

The bad thing is that it has induced practices and behaviour linked to a vague model of global competitiveness that is not in the best interests of the nations they serve.

Most starkly, this includes demands for faculty and graduate students intent on an academic career to publish in recognised international academic journals.

This had fed a startling growth in their number, citation inflation and gaming to move up this or that ranking.

One can barely read any journal article in the social sciences anymore without facing a barrage of meaningless citations, often on the most mundane of observations.

Studies have also shown that some journal editors, and their boards, encourage authors to cite articles in the same journal they are publishing in — in turn driving up the journal’s impact score based, you guessed it, on citations.

New rankings of ‘social impact’, or meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, are hopelessly flawed in their methodology.

Many of these rankings rely on written responses by universities on the virtues of their programmatic efforts that, one might suspect, could lead to exaggeration and embellishment.

It is clear that ranking products will remain consumer guides for students, and an influence on the global movement of academic talent.

However, as influencers of university strategies, policies and behaviour, they are thankfully on the decline.

That also means a corresponding decline in the notion of a world-class university (WCU) that blatantly ignores the many important roles and activities universities need to pursue to be productive and impactful institutions.

How might many leading national universities pivot forcefully toward a more aspiring raison d’etre?

While the forces of globalisation on academic life and elsewhere are powerful and generally positive in creating a global science system, universities are anchor institutions tied to their locality.

They are, or should be, powerful engines for socio-economic mobility, economic development, culture and seeking a better life for those whom they are intended to serve.

Leading national universities are now more important for socio-economic mobility, for producing economic and civic leaders, for knowledge production and for pushing innovation and societal self-reflection.

Universities are not static, but evolving and startlingly productive institutions which play an increasingly central role in society and the world.

The NFU model attempts to capture this reality.

It envisions national leading universities as institutions that not only meet the standards of excellence focused on research productivity and rankings, but are responsive to the larger social needs of their specific environment and people.

Put another way, the NFU model simply attempts to provide some guides and examples for what many universities are already doing or are thinking of doing —seeking excellence in all their endeavours, not just in a narrow band of certain kinds of research and prestige markers.

For universities that seek a holistic approach to their development, and embrace an ethos of a constant search for self-improvement and greater societal impact, aspects of the NFU model may be useful, particularly as the ranking influence fades.

*John Aubrey Douglass is a senior researcher and Research Professor of Public Policy and Higher Education at the Centre for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley.

A fuller version of this article appears on the University World News website at this PS News link.

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