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University ranking rankles: playing the prestige game

Future students need more than rankings to make the best choice. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Australian universities compete with providers all over the globe. The stakes are high and it is hard to ignore world rankings.

In The Conversation recently, however, University of Southern Queensland’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jan Thomas, questioned the value of rankings locally, and outlined why her university steers clear of rankings altogether.

Ranking rivalries

Australian universities naturally want to perform well against our international rivals and attract good students and the best staff. But in the domestic context, rankings have a discriminatory effect for little gain, marginalising and devaluing the work of smaller universities.

The corrosive effect of rankings may not be confined to regional institutions or urban universities outside the Group of Eight (Go8). All universities are understandably jealous of their brand and project this immaterial asset as forcefully as they can.

For some, the rank achieved on league tables reinforces domestic marketing strategies as well as those abroad. One could argue that this emphasis fosters prejudice among prospective students. Advertising promiscuously by any mark of distinction, the sector encourages students to see universities through properties sometimes little better than snob-value.

Rankings tend to validate this bias, with much swagger and presumption among the proud, to the point that even academics view their institutions through performance in rankings, rather than their own experiences.

But inevitably, rankings yield only a partial picture. Consider the great influence that research income has upon many indicators. Any university with a medical faculty is likely to be able to show greater per capita research funding than a university without a medical faculty, because medical research is expensive. The engorged research budget of a big university with costly sciences does not mean that research in any other field in the university (much less teaching) is superior than in counterparts without a medical faculty.

Alas, the university with the bigger research budget will automatically rank higher and is assumed to have preeminence – a distinction that hardly amounts to good science.

Discriminating indicators

Rankings are carried out by government and private institutions alike in the name of productivity and choice. They are based on measures of questionable value and generate disproportionate interest.

To be fair, university rankings are not entirely baseless and they are at least more tangible than some of the marketing tricks we see on advertising billboards. Further, we tend to be sympathetic to the large and successful universities, given that their status overseas is at issue; and all figures – no matter how invidious locally – count toward the international marketing of Australian education.

However, our necessary participation in these competitions has some unhappy effects; and I wonder what might mitigate their negative moral consequences.

At this stage, the MyUniversity website concentrates on teaching quality, student demographic and retention. It’s only a matter of time before other prestige factors are measured.

Even if such data are never to be included on MyUniversity, the universities themselves vigorously conduct local marketing to project a brand which rests on inscrutable combinations of course-choices, immaterial factors (mood, excitement, atmosphere, culture), elite student or staff achievement and, if they have anything to boast about, rankings.

Smoke and mirrors

One would hope that the basis for students choosing a course would involve matching what they most want to study with what the several universities offer. But universities rather encourage students to choose using the smoke and mirrors of prestige.

Many universities cultivate associations of competitive glamour in a shameless spirit, as with the merchandising of anything, when more reasoned processes should be encouraged. Do we need to promote the idea that one university is constitutionally better than another?

Before they get to university, prospective students are inducted into an elitist language of prejudice. Research graduates, who are savvy and experienced, find their way to specific staff or departments with a glowing reputation in the field thanks to their publications. But school leavers don’t have the opportunity to select their academic mentors, so we tend to appeal to their general conceit.

There is no point wishing rankings and branding away; and it’s only natural that any university with something to boast about will broadcast its glory.

Nevertheless, good taste suggests that success in rankings is best reserved for international marketing where we wish all contenders the very best fortune. Branding, meanwhile, should indicate a philosophical position with a social or environmental or creative purpose.

In the higher education sector, it should be assumed that we encourage students to find their courses according to reason.

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