Blame it on the rankings

Serious critique on rankings and league tables. This time not about the flawed methodologies and inaccuracies in the data collection, but on the detrimental effects of rankings. They ‘erode academic vigour’ and they ‘threaten the country’s prosperity’.

In the Guardian, Geoffrey Alderman argues that the league tables lead to grade inflation and a lowering of standards in order for universities to appear high in the rankings:

“How has British higher education got itself into this mess? Part of the answer lies in the league-table culture that now permeates the sector. The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league-table near rivals, and if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes, the argument is put about that “peer” institutions must do the same. The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque “bidding” game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the alter of public image – as reflected in newspaper rankings.”

Alderman however, does not blame it all on rankings and league tables. It’s also the changing student body that is to be blamed. Or more in particular, the funding system that has changed the student body:

“As UK students come to pay a greater proportion of the real cost of their tuition, they view themselves less as clients in the learning process and more as customers with needs to be satisfied. They are less interested in the acquisition of knowledge and of the critical skills needed to evaluate it, and more interested merely in acquiring and regurgitating those segments of knowledge necessary to obtain a degree.”

I think Alderman is a bit too swift in his conclusions and his causal relations. Instead of the race-to-the-bottom thesis you could also argue that league tables lead to a race-to-the-top. That of course does require the rankings to use valid criteria and methods. His argument about the student body doesn’t hold in my opinion. At least the relation isn’t as straightforward as Alderman portrays. The ‘students as customers’ perspective can have a very positive effect on higher education. Since they payed, they want value for their money. They want scheduled classes to proceed, books to be available, lecturers to be prepared and to be involved, facilities to be up to date, etc. Alderman however doesn’t seem to regard the student body very highly. They are reduced to degree seeking individuals.

The second critique comes from Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He blames the lack of maths skills on the rankings and league tables:

“In the race to achieve higher rankings in the tables staff are discouraging pupils from taking mathematics after the age of 16 because the subject is viewed as difficult, and therefore a risk to league positions through examination failures.”

To underline their argument they compared a (1st year students) maths test of “a respected English university” with a Chinese pre-entry test:

Ouch… I don’t think you can blame this all on the rankings, but that hurts…

(thanks to ScienceGuide and Rangkingwatch for pointing me to the articles)

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