The Guardian homeNow tuition-sensitive students are buyers on the global market of higher education, a very useful element in the rankings would be price, says AnaMaria Dutceac Segesten.
Higher education, like so many other sectors, is currently undergoing change. Global trends demonstrate the increased "marketisation" of universities. This means, in some cases, that higher education institutions are seen as for-profit businesses, run on business logic.
A milder form of marketisation is the introduction of tuition fees in countries traditionally known for their open access to education (United Kingdom, and for some specific student categories: The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden to mention a few). I am sure that the desire of people working for this transformation is to improve the flaws of the current ways in which HE is structured, to make it more efficient, more responsive to the needs of the society, or simply, more modern.
I discussed elsewhere the potential benefits of this era of transformation, for example through the expansion of open access practices. This moment of change is therefore to be embraced for all the opportunities it latently may hold.
At the same time, the transformation we are currently experiencing in the academia may also be perceived as confusing, perplexing even, perhaps because we lack the definition of what we should aim for. The question "what is a good university?" is a legitimate one in this context, and one that many tried their hand at answering. Among those who may claim to hold the key to the puzzle are those measuring the success of universities in the global arena through the creation of indexes and rankings.
There are several such measures circulating today, each with a specific methodology and therefore with (slightly) different results. I will not endeavor here to discuss comparatively the merits or the pitfalls of each of them. The most famous ones are the Times Higher Education Rankings, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Rankings, or the QS World University Rankings which can be found on this network, (while the Europeans are trying to push for their own index, U-Multirank). What these different measures share is an explosive potential that is activated every time a new ranking is made public, making them repeatedly the target of criticism. But what is the purpose of these global rankings? Do they give us a standard of a "good university" that all should attempt to follow?
According to the recent report Global University Rankings and their Impact made for the European University Association, the major benefits of the idea of measuring and comparing academic quality globally are that they foster accountability and that they scan the field for more information. At the same time, the report criticises the oversimplification of university quality and performance. In other words, the picture of the "best" university in the world that emerges from these rankings is not giving us a multifaceted and complex view.
I agree with this criticism and feel that here lies the most significant part of the problem. These rankings, as popular and spread as they may be, give to the societies and to universities themselves a distorted view. This slanted depiction may be the result of the specific measurement methodologies employed, in particular the preference in most cases for research productivity over teaching and learning achievements. The "best" universities then are those who produce the largest number of articles in the most prestigious publications, those who allow most freedom for research, those who offer the best facilities and most modern technologies to push forward our common knowledge.
This leaves aside though the other, equally significant, aspect of higher education, namely didactics. Universities must produce new knowledge, I completely agree, but they also must transmit knowledge and encourage the most suitable students to become part of this discovery process in their turn. University rankings tend to reveal a bias in favor of research over teaching, and the definition of the good university is therefore least said incomplete.
Moreover, the claim that many such ranking organisations are making is that they help students make better choices, serving as orientation guides in an increasingly complex world of opportunities. But if the rankings as a general rule are leaning towards the research power of universities, what is the direct use of this classification for an undergraduate student. For this person, a measure of university performance that would emphasise the quality of teaching would be far more rewarding. If now tuition-sensitive students are buyers on the global market of higher education, a very useful element in the rankings would be price, spelling out which one is the best and most expensive university in the world, or which other is the best quality for the money.
If universities are sellers of certified knowledge then the university rankings may very well be a good guide for the prospective student who is out shopping. However, it is not where we should look for the definition of "a good university".
Dr Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, research fellow at the
Center for Modern European Studies, University of Copenhagen and co-founder of the University of Venus, a blog for Generation X females in HE.