Competitive University Markets
My last blog looked at the criteria on which rankings are based. It ended with a warning that universities might game the system, focusing on the ‘measurable’ things at the expense of what those measures aim to capture. Let’s assume – with our least cynical hats on – that they don’t play this game: their entrance standards reflect the difficulty of their degrees, high student satisfaction reflects challenging and effective degrees and suitable facilities, the research is good quality and well-cited, and so on. How does the competitive side of things pan out in practice?
Competition, top down.
University rankings are supposed to increase quality through competition. If universities can see where their rivals are stronger, then they know which areas they need to improve in to do better. ‘Doing better’ means that in the future they can hopefully attract more students and research funding, deliver better degrees and conduct really good research. The use of the term ‘league table’ for rankings is about right, in that they are usually presented as a top to bottom, strongest to weakest hierarchy. In sport we see a few big names dominating the rest in most international or national competitions. You might get the occasional upset, and this is part of the fun of it. Year on year, though, the wealthiest teams can afford the biggest names, sell the most merchandise, make the most money, and win all of the trophies. The same thing happens in higher education, in that those at the top stay up there. Any look at university rankings over a few years will show that there is relatively little significant movement in any direction. As in sport, you get the occasional underdog who leaps up the tables, and you also get the odd big hitter falling from grace, but these are the exceptions.
So what we can see happening is that the universities that start high are fixed there. This is partly because they already fit the model that rankings are based on. Then, because of their now ‘official’ high status, they can (continue to) attract the highest performing students, more research money, and also pay top salaries to get the best researchers in each area. This means that their stats are always going to look good. Universities with more limited resources might have a few strong areas but can’t maintain that level across the whole university. You do get rankings in individual subjects and this can level the playing field, at least in little pockets. You tend to get genuine competition in ‘mini leagues’ where universities feel that they’re fighting with those closest to them in status, either on a whole university or subject-specific basis. At the very top, they’re all desperate to maintain their overall advantage and maybe sneak a place over those just above them. At the bottom, it can be a fight to survive – it’s not relegation but closure. In the grand scheme of things, the elites have a head start and it’s more a case of business as usual. The same phenomenon filters all the way down in little sections and in essence it all finishes where it starts.
So what’s a good university?
All of this raises questions about what rankings measure, not in the sense of what the individual criteria are, which I’ve already blogged about, but what overall picture they promote. Rankings tend to encourage a particular form of university: academically selective, large, wealthy, usually older/well-established, and nearly always research-focused. In some places this can mean that teaching loses its importance, but the paradox is that student satisfaction on rankings (and also tuition fees) means that it’s firmly back on the agenda. Universities that are newer, ‘poorer’, and have traditionally focused more (or solely) on teaching are at an instant disadvantage. Rankings might encourage them to change, to do more research and become more like those at the top; they may even alter the way they’re organised to look more like the elite ones. You may find that standards – at least as far as they are measurable – will rise, but those at the bottom are always going to be there or thereabouts, regardless of how good they are. Even if they’re brilliant, they’ll always look ‘less brilliant’ because they’re constantly and unsuccessfully playing catch-up. The competition isn’t real competition at all, but is always lop-sided.
The International Picture
This imbalance filters down internationally, too. A quick glance through the global rankings shows that a few countries – all wealthy ones – dominate the whole thing. In the top 50 Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, 35 are from the UK and US. Are their universities simply better? If you measure according to rankings, then yes, but as we’ve already seen, the criteria on which rankings are based aren’t perfect. There is concern here that the top (mostly Western) universities control knowledge, in that they drown out alternative views and suck up talent from poorer areas – the infamous brain drain. There is also a limit as to how many universities you can feasibly include in a table. A list can only be so long, and the data isn’t necessarily available in all cases or countries. The THE has 400, and someone has estimated that there are 17,000 universities worldwide. This means that they exclude nearly 98% of all universities! Are they all no good?! The only way to get yourself onto and up the list is to play the rankings game, and this requires massive sums of money over a prolonged period of time. You need to develop infrastructure such as labs, libraries, administration and accommodation, to start or improve courses, to promote a university’s profile, and to attract top researchers and students. This is happening in some parts of Middle East, for example, where they are revamping or building new universities. In other places such as Japan and Germany, a small number of universities are being given massive slices of cash to get (or keep) a few names in the top tier. Where the resources simply aren’t available, such as in Africa (which has 3 universities in the top 400, all in South Africa), they’re permanently locked away from the top table. You’ll see mini-competitions in these places, with national and regional hierarchies that perhaps don’t get seen outside those areas.
I wonder how useful university rankings really are. They may drive up some kind of standards, and this is a good thing, but it’s always going to be an unequal competition. This seems unjust, and it’s interesting but also depressing to see how this inequality pans out both domestically and globally. Some universities spend huge sums every year on advertising and profile building, recruiting the best students, making sure their students are as happy as possible, that the facilities are stunning, and so on. This is not such a bad thing provided access to such facilities is somehow egalitarian. It simply isn’t, though, and that much is very well-documented. I was struck during my PhD by how the German students I spoke to thought rankings were irrelevant, and chose universities based more on what they wanted to study and where they wanted to live. This seems a much gentler proposition than the incessant competition and ‘university snobbery’ that you see in some other places. Imagine if all that money and effort were spent on standards for their own sake, in widening access, improving teaching and supporting research…