Battle of the rankings
American universities have begun a rebellion against academic league tables. British universities should join them
Annually since 1983, US News & World Report has published a table of rankings – we would call them league tables – of American universities and degree-granting colleges. As late August approaches, university presidents, who will have been told in advance of the positions of their institutions in the tables, prepare press statements pointing out how well they have done, if not overall then – hopefully – at least in some sub-category. This good news will appear on their websites, and will be exploited in promotional and recruiting literature.
But this year the really good news is not that Harvard has come top, displacing last year's No1 (Princeton), or that "HYP" – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – almost invariably occupy the top three places. No. The really good news is that more US-based higher-education institutions than ever before have refused to take any part whatsoever in the so-called "reputational" survey, the results of which comprise the single greatest component of the formula used by US News in compiling its rankings tables.
This refusal rate has been growing steadily. In former times the participation rate in the reputational survey was around two-thirds. In 2006 it fell to 58% and in 2007 to 51%. This year it dropped to 46%.
US News argues that there is a certain inevitability about this fall – including (a US News spokesperson has alleged) the impact of "survey fatigue" and the preoccupation of university and college executives with financial matters and with the demands of a higher education act recently passed by Congress after two years of bitter controversy over lax accreditation ("quality assurance") arrangements. But it is clear that a major factor in the growing revolt against the rankings culture has been Education Conservancy, a pressure-group-cum-thinkthank established in 2004 with the object of helping "students, colleges and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions".
Last year Education Conservancy launched a campaign to persuade university and college presidents to sign a pledge committing themselves and their institutions "to disengage from US News and World Report's rankings" by refusing to take part in its reputational survey and by refraining from using its rankings in promotional and recruitment literature. Initially the list of signatories was heavily biased towards liberal arts colleges. But the evidence is unmistakable that major universities are joining the revolt: the University of Illinois at Chicago, for instance, and the University of New Hampshire.
The reputational survey accounts for a full 25% of ranking outcomes. Presidents, provosts (generally chief academic officers) and deans of admissions of American universities and colleges are asked to rank the academic programmes of "peer" institutions. US News claims that presidents, provosts and deans of admissions equate to "top academics". But of course they don't. Another 20% is accounted for by "retention" – the proportion of freshman students who return the following year and eventually graduate. US News claims that the higher this proportion "the better a school [HE institution] is apt to be at offering the classes and services students need to succeed". But it is equally possible that institutions with low academic standards will attract high retention rates. A further 5% of rankings outcomes are based on the percentage of alumni who donate money to the institutions from which they graduated. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of education provided. There is more than anecdotal evidence to suggest that institutions run campaigns to persuade as large a number of alumni as possible to donate very small amounts.
The plain fact is that none of the indicators used by US News measure either the academic standards that obtain at the institutions ranked, or the actual quality of the education provided. But obsession with place in the rankings tables has skewed and suborned educational priorities. Happily, it is clear that a revolt against this unwelcome trend is now gathering momentum.
League tables have had a similarly perverse effect on British higher education. An HE institution that awards more firsts and upper seconds will improve its position in these tables. But academic standards may well have declined. Conversely, a low retention rate may actually reflect high academic standards, but will inexorably damage an institution when league-table positions are being calculated (and may also attract government-imposed financial penalties).
Newspapers publish league tables to make money. They are here to stay and – in any case - some of the information they use is already in the public domain. But that does not mean that universities and colleges need collaborate with them, or welcome or exploit their findings. It would be no bad thing if British universities were to launch on this side of the pond a campaign similar to that being run so successfully by Education Conservancy in the US. If British vice-chancellors are unwilling or unable to summon the courage to take this step, perhaps Education Conservancy can be persuaded to open a branch here in the UK.
Aug 27 08, 11:25pm
I know from a friend who works in a university that the management has recently started a drive to ensure that departments handout more first-class degrees. Of course it is not couched in quite so stark terms, just in case the media get hold of it, but the implication is very clear and very well understood. For some perverse reason handing out first class degrees has been linked to university attainment. As a result degree inflation will happily join GCSE and A-level inflation. Indeed, amongst teacher training colleges there is now a push to have graduates attaining Masters level qualifications. Another government initiative if you hadn't guessed. And how was this achieved? By handing Masters level qualifications for what once would have passed as bog standard degree work. And in some cases A-level work.
The particular University in question handed out 20 credits towards a Masters degree (out of 180) simply for completing a two week refresher course at A-level standard for new PGCE students in the subject they were planning to teach. To introduce some vague assessment criteria upon completion of the refresher course the students had to write a 1500 word essay on "what they had learnt". For this to be deemed Masters level work is an absolute scandal, but the universities do it because the government pushes it. No doubt it will be reeled off in the future by the education Secretary as evidence of "improving standards" under Labour.
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Aug 28 08, 1:54am
Full-cost recovery on courses has had a corrosive effect on taught post-graduate course quality in particular. Now, for some departments it is the biggest source of income and supports most of the untenured staff. This of course is a result of the unwillingness of government to fund higher education to the level it deserves, given the priority of an educated workforce for a nation's economy. The result is that more and more students are admitted with less and less qualification and to maintain the level of recruitment, more and more of these people are passed are a poorer level of performance than 5 years ago. They go on to, in most cases, perfom underwhelmingly in their jobs as "experts" and most lack skills I would expect from undergrads, while fresh grads are for the most part ignorant of their subject areas on graduation, thanks to "Smarties" degrees. Education as a business - I blame the business studies and management departments - shoot the lot of them. My own university has shot up the rankings of the Times HES in recent years but frankly everyone I speak to on Faculty finds it incomprehensible and morale is lower than I've even known it to be - simply a widget production system now.
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Aug 28 08, 4:10am
Iread every damn one of those books and articles when my oldest was graduating from High School. In retrospect, those rankings are useless.
Everybody knows what the "...best..." schools are.
what counts is your kid and what he/she wants and "..fit...".
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Aug 28 08, 9:07am
Much more important than attacking the rankings is to attack the ridiculous research review juggernaut that results in academics spending all their time producing articles in peer-reviewed journals that nobody but themselves, and sometimes the peer reviewer ever read.
I was taught English by, amongst others Raymond Williams and George Steiner. Neither ever attained a chair at their home university because of university politics, but under the present system neither would have attained tenure.
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Aug 28 08, 11:07am
Alfie Kohn defines competition as any situation where one person's success is dependent upon another's failure. http://www.shareintl.org
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