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Rank universities

It’s the restaurant guide to higher learning

17 July 2020

11:00 PM

17 July 2020

11:00 PM

Everything in seemingly spinning out of control. Statues are coming down, there’s violence (and a virus) in the air, and New Zealand’s University of Waikato has just tumbled to 375th place in the latest rankings of the  ‘best’ international institutions of higher learning.

What is the world coming to? Ruin and damnation, is what I say. Honestly, if Satan in his diabolical cruelty had invented a bigger waste of journalistic time than one or other of these ubiquitous ranking exercises purporting to show the most influential celebrities, the most respected community leaders, the most delicious restaurants, the most powerful business chiefs, or, especially, the most wonderful academic institutions, it’s hard to imagine.

You get to the end of most of them and think, Gosh, that’s another 30 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back.

Many years ago the Daily Mirror in Britain effectively satirised the conceit by producing a list of the country’s 100 least important people. The names of those who made the final cut are as hard to recall now as they were to recognise then. Still, it was the cheeky editorial thought that counted, in particular for what it said about the ubiquitous university rankings.

In the latest, released this month by the higher education consultancy firm QS Quacquarelli Symonds, five Australian institutions have been ranked among what the compilers claim to be the world’s ‘best’ 50 universities.

Like other media outlets that publish similar rankings, including US News & World Report, Maclean’s in Canada and Britain’s Financial Times, the QS World University Rankings bills itself as accurately reflecting the shifting academic excellence of universities by quantifying their current achievements.

The Australian National University retained its position as top of the academic pops in the QS survey, but fell two places to joint 31st. Meanwhile, Sydney University shuffled up two places to 40th and the University of Melbourne dropped three notches to 41st.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s University of Auckland improved its standing over last year, up two slots to 81. Most of the country’s other seven universities did rather less auspiciously, as was the case with a majority of their Australian counterparts, who bubbled around the middle mark of the 1,000 degree-granting institutions around the world considered in the wider list.

It all looks terribly arcane, and in a sense it is. The QS exercise and others like it differ from, say, ‘best’ restaurant listings, which can usually be whipped up on the rather less-than-scientific basis of their compilers’ recent dining experiences, or in the case of music or magazines simply by referring to sales or circulation. By contrast, university rankings involve objective-sounding metrics such as student/teacher ratios, endowment values, student ‘diversity’, classroom sizes and citations.

Typically, the weighting given to each arbitrarily changes a little each year. This accounts for what would otherwise seem like rather puzzling annual institutional shifts we see from year to year: this time it’s Imperial College London leading the pack, next time it’s MIT or the University of Oxford.

After all, when you think about it, somewhere like Oxford has been in business for the better part of 1,000 years — it enrolled its first foreign student (Emo of Friesland) back in 1190. Has the institutional bounty of the dreaming spires wildly veered on an annual basis ever since? Really? And Oxford has 39 colleges within its federal-type system, many of them quite different in terms of age, wealth and tradition.

Measuring their relative strengths would require a survey of its own, and even that would be necessarily riddled with caveats.

So for all the lofty methodological talk, what these exercises almost invariably boil down to is little more (or less) than the astonishing fact that elite academic institutions probably became that way because they are a bit better than the non-elite ones and that the size really does matter when it comes to endowments. We can also see that institutions that nab a greater share of the public treasury tend to rate more highly than those that don’t.

This not only true of Australia’s research-intensive Group of Eight universities but Britain’s 24-strong version of the same, known as the Russell Group. The same can be said for the eight colleges of the American Ivy League (and their wealthy equivalents out west and in the Deep South) and the designated national universities across much of Asia that governments spend the most money on. These are the ones that almost always come out on top. Just fancy that.

Despite such thoroughly unsurprising results, universities tend to devote a lot of attention to these rankings, believing as they do that even the tiniest shift in placing offers a bellwether for the greater funding and, especially, increased enrolments from lucrative fee-paying foreign students.

In New Zealand, the enthusiasm became a bit painful to witness a couple of years ago when the Victoria University of Wellington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars unsuccessfully petitioning for a name-change. The concern was that intending foreign students might confuse their institution (number 265 in the latest survey) with Melbourne’s Victoria University (365) or even Canada’s University of Victoria (601).

This always seemed a tad disrespectful to those young people who were supposedly unable to tell the difference between North America and the South Pacific. Queen Victoria probably would not have been amused, either; the government of New Zealand, which rejected the proposal, certainly was not.

And now it’s 2020, a great many international students are shut out of local academic markets for the foreseeable future, and none of it really matters much right now. Closer to home, much of the currently visible student activity in many jurisdictions has more to do with toppling statues and ‘cancelling’ ideological opponents than attending classes or obtaining degrees.

Perhaps the caper for next time might be to produce a new listing of the world’s most woke institutions of higher learning, possibly with reference to the number of colonial artefacts successfully removed from nearby public spaces or visiting speakers banned from campus events.

With everything seemingly spinning out of control, it could at long last be a ranking exercise worthy of the name.

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