I have been reading my way through Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi’s new book, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Universities,* that tracks the experience of 11 universities in nine countries as they develop into successful research institutions, and I am struck regularly with the same thought: isn’t it time to give it up with those silly global rankings already?
For those who might be holding out for some redeeming value in the pursuit of stature in the rankings, consider the following:
- There is a supreme irony at work here, by turns cruel and hilarious, which can be summarized as follows: a) among thousands, there is a mere handful of higher education institutions worldwide that are unanimously exalted. And b) these are the only ones for which the various rankings actually reflect any methodological coherence. In a recent article in European Journal of Higher Education for instance, Kay Cheng Soh took the top ten of three different ranking systems, and re-grouped them to avoid the effects of spurious precision. Only six institutions appear in all three global top tens. By contrast Mr. Soh’s home institution, the very respectable Nanyang Technical University (NTU) of Singapore, was ranked 100 positions apart by two different rankings…
- Methodological limitations notwithstanding, one could argue that one of the things global higher education rankings also proxy is adaptation to “academic neo-colonialism,” to reprise Prof. Altbach. Scholars worldwide, and their institutions, “are under pressure to conform to the norms and values of the metropolitan academic systems that use English.” That is the air we breathe, so to speak. But imperial lingua francas aside, shouldn’t we all be doing what we can to ensure that these same people and universities around the world put their communities and countries first, and that increasingly, they become authentic refractors of the planet’s vast intellectual and cultural richness? Francisco Marmolejo, in his case study on Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology (ITESM), notes that as that institution takes steps to become a world-class research university, its differentiation is also causing it “to become somewhat isolated from the rest of the Mexican higher education system.” How could that be healthy?
- Excellence, like all things of abiding value, is a marathon, not a sprint. Picture the year 1640; you are an educated, upper-class Englishman, having a hearty laugh with your mates in London at the news that those religious fanatics and other marginals in the colonies have now “founded their own university” in Boston, led by the benefaction of a certain John Harvard two years prior—priceless! A few generations later, I’m guessing no one was laughing. At any rate, my point is this: that is what it takes, in the best of cases. The processes of growth have accelerated enormously since, and Mssrs. Altbach and Salmi’s book features some institutions that have made enormous advances in tiny amounts of time, relatively speaking. But make no mistake: excellence is a longitudinal affair. By that standard too, year-on-year rankings are inconsequential.
As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” We should be nurturing authenticity and relevance, not aping each other, and rankings are part of the problem. After nearly a decade of self-justifications and methodological bricolage, we are left with a process that is at best methodologically flawed, and at worst a titanic waste of time. My vote is to move on; it hasn’t worked out so far. And if we must, then let us all recuse ourselves, and turn the whole business over to the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher (of PISA fame).
Daniel Lincoln is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. He is editor of European Journal of Higher Education and special issues editor of studies in Higher Education.