The global ranking industry might have got its most significant attack in recent times. Professor Brian Schmidt, the Vice-Chancellor of the global front rank Australian National University, (ANU) is questioning the validity of the ranking exercise, alleging that reliance on it by universities to market themselves is not only misleading students but also distorting the research priorities of universities.
Although Professor Schmidt’s interview with The Sydney Morning Herald is four days old now, it seems to have got no major refutation from those at its receiving end, suggesting its credibility and substantial acceptance within the system. Reactions on Twitter to the story point to that direction.
According to the paper’s report of the interview written by Jordan Baker, Prof Schmidt who is a Nobel Laureate in Physics is holding the companies behind the global rankings to arbitrarily choose to reward science and engineering but overlook teaching quality, humanities research and subjects with little interest beyond Australia, such as local literature and history.
The paper quotes Professor Schmidt as saying that rankings matter but questions their quality: “They drive students to you, they hold up your prestige in community and governments. It’s a shame they really aren’t very good”
Furthermore, the VC says “I think most vice-chancellors, certainly around the world that I know, agree with me. They really do worry about the distortionary effect on our missions and the choices we make.”
His worry is how rankings are influencing the choice universities make: “There are decisions being made in Australia about how teaching and research loads are distributed that as near as I can tell are meant to maximise rankings” he told the paper, adding they were major changes to the way Australia does its teaching.
Schmidt is quoted as saying “The challenge you have as a vice-chancellor is, do I do the right thing by the students and staff, or do I try to make the rankings go up? You can make decisions that you know are right but they just push you backwards.”
In his view, the rankings are also failing to achieve their stated purpose of helping students choose a university because “The rankings have nothing to do with teaching outcomes right now, and sometimes I think they direct students to the wrong place”.
Editorializing, the paper says global university rankings begun about 15 years ago have become increasingly important as the international education market has boomed because prospective students use them as a guide to countries and institutions. It also recalls how that of Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the current year featured a record number of Australian universities in the top 200, among them the University of Sydney which rose nine places to 51st; the University of Melbourne which was Australia’s top-ranked at number 30 and that ANU itself slid nine spots to 59th.
Speaking further about Australian universities, it says many of them have publicly stated rankings ambitions, with the University of New South Wales aiming at being among the top 50 across key rankings such as THE, QS and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities by 2025. And how some politicians in South Australia, especially former federal minister by name Christopher Pyne – have been arguing for a merger between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia because Adelaide University is considered too small to crack the world’s top 100.
Bringing in Salvatore Babones described as University of Sydney sociologist and commentator on higher education and China at the Centre for Independent Studies, it attributes to him many universities now prioritising scientific research over humanities or Australian subjects due to rankings.
Dr Babones is hitting at how rankings reward citations, making universities to find it easier to hire frequently cited academics than nurture their own; some rankings such as Shanghai (ARWU) basing theirs purely on research metrics while others use reputation metrics that he thinks are flawed. “Universities are warping their entire organisations to succeed on a metric that in the end is pretty meaningless for the experience of students here in Australia,” he said.
Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at ANU is also reported as saying the major global rankings tells prospective students little about what would be one of the most important aspects of their university experience, teaching, concluding that “Ranking has a distorting effect”. Only Frank Larkins, indicated as a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of global relations at the University of Melbourne is crediting the rankings’ confirmation of the quality of Australian education as what lures high-quality students and staff from overseas.
The University of Sydney which is hunting for a new Vice-Chancellor would, according to the paper, attract stronger candidates because of its global reputation while major corporations would be more willing to invest in the research of a top-ranked engineering school.
The ANU VC’s interview is coming on the heels of anxiety about funding in the wake of COVID-19, especially as it affects international students vis-à-vis funding. Only time would tell what the full import of the interview might be. What is important is that the stakeholders in the ranking industry are bound to take note of the interview.