About a year ago Indolaysia reported on the struggles of creating a world class university in a short amount of time. Since then we have become more aware of how important the global university rankings produced by the Times of London and Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the like have become. The folks in charge of every university outside of the United States are increasingly devoted to moving up in the rankings. (We remember hearing all about the University of Malaya’s great performance in 2004, and terrible fall in the rankings in 2005.) And I’ve even heard about it in the U.S. context. One university with which we are pretty familiar has a long term goal of being a “top 10” university in the world.
In one sense, this is all ludicrous. Compare those two rankings: beyond the top 15 or so universities the disparity between the two rankings becomes pretty substantial. If you compare each ranking with itself in previous years, the results also bounce around quite a bit. Those two observations suggest that these rankings are neither valid nor reliable measures of quality (it’s not clear that there’s even a consensus on what quality is, and we of course remember that concept formation stands prior to quantification). And in a time of austerity it’s probably a bad idea to start cutting things left or right to produce modest movements in rankings that aren’t really measuring anything real anyway.
Yet that is what people want. In the Asia-Pacific region especially, the competition over smart, rich Chinese students is fierce. Let’s say you’re a rich kid from some provincial Chinese city and you essentially have no constraint on how much you are willing to pay for a university degree education. Are you going to go to Oxford or Stanford? Maybe. But more than likely that’s not your option; so do you choose ANU, NUS, UHK, or North Texas? If you don’t know much about them, you’ll probably be interested in just looking at the rankings. And again, in a time of austerity, these kids bring loads of cash, and that’s pretty useful.
Here’s the deal, though. While no one really knows what drives these rankings, everyone has an idea of what you ought to do. Eliminate small niche programs that aren’t interesting to boatloads of students and don’t have faculty who publish immense amounts of peer-reviewed journal articles (like area studies programs in the U.S., or poetry or medieval French or music). We are not disinterested parties in this discussion, but it seems pretty obvious to us that when you try to value higher education in these terms–and use the logic of the market (in students) to create a long-term strategic plan for your university–you end up losing a lot of what makes higher education valuable. And neither of us thinks that Harvard got to be Harvard by focusing on “global business” or “STEM” or whatever academic buzzword is sexy right now at the expense of anthropology and Sanskrit.