University rankings ignore teaching

Over the past decade, the major and unhelpful intrusion into both the national and the international worlds of higher education has been the advent of university rankings.

Surprisingly, despite the enormous activities these rankings have generated in universities and in their international associations worldwide – with multiple conferences and publications debating every aspect of their various ranking criteria – there is no evidence which quantifies, either with academic metrics or philosophical analyses, just what value they are contributing to the world of higher education. The rankings say almost nothing about education.

The ranking organisations will argue that, with the increasing mobility of students in the international world of higher education, they provide a valuable service to both students and their parents in making their university choices and that they give universities valuable tools to participate on the world university stage, to compete for the high fee-paying international students and for internationally known academics.

It is now a world sport in which universities everywhere must compete; they have no choice.

Of course, as is the norm in our academic world, there is no shortage of debate and criticism, with multiple opinions on the impact that these rankings are having in the international world of higher education and how they are simply report cards on wealth disparities between institutions and countries.

This critical territory is vast, the participants on both sides are many, with the debate sometimes rightly being described as an internecine academic conflict over league tables.

Rankings and teaching

And then there is the damage done by rankings’ emphasis on research rather than teaching.

However much the proponents of rankings may disagree, the predominant criterion of the leading rankings is the performance of each university in their research publications in internationally accredited academic journals.

There are, however, a number of recently launched rankings such as U-Multirank with its 85 criteria, which include teaching and learning and many other university activities in their assessments, but, compared to research, these metrics are difficult to obtain and however much most academics would agree with what these newer rankings are trying to do, they are having difficulty in gaining acceptance in the global university marketplace.

The longer established global university rankings are the United Kingdom-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities. They currently dominate this marketplace and their overriding assessment criterion is research activity.

This is having a direct effect on every university by elevating research to be their key mission, resulting in its recognition as the prime criterion for a young academic’s ascent up the ladder from junior lecturer to professor.

No one is ever promoted to a professorship because of their excellence in teaching and it is not suggested that that should necessarily be the case. It is simply a question of balance.

The idea of a university

The principal mission of a university is the teaching of students so that they graduate with a deep understanding of a particular discipline and, more importantly, are enlightened with an educated scepticism of accepted philosophies and practices in that discipline and with a confidence that all can be changed for the better and that the world is their oyster. Research has an important but secondary role.

The important 1963 UK Robbins Report on higher education defined the mission of a university as being “to promote the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists, but rather cultivated men and women, and to maintain research in balance with teaching…”.

The world of higher education has, of course, changed since that time, with now more than 50% of the youth in most countries going to university compared to about 5% back in 1963, but that change alone surely reinforces the teaching mission of universities, spelt out eloquently in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University some 100 years before Robbins.

The publication of the results of the various international ranking assessments has an important direct influence on the choice of university by wealthy migrant students, typically from such countries as China and India, who have no problem in paying annual fees of US$50,000 at the top-ranking universities.

Promotion over the personal touch

Over this past decade, with the advent of rankings, the attraction of high fee-paying students has become a core and seemingly irreversible component in the annual financial management of universities everywhere.

The end result within universities is that academic staff very quickly realise after their first appointment that the way up the academic ladder is through research and certainly not through teaching. That means many close their door to their students after giving their lectures in order to focus on their research and write their research papers.

The one-to-one academic interaction of students with their lecturers is more valuable to students’ education than their attendance at lectures, but the ‘open door’ philosophy of yesterday appears to be sadly on the wane. Academics know that through their research they attain promotion, gain international recognition for both themselves and their university and help to raise the position of their university in the rankings.

They also gain elevated status and high regard both within their university and in the worldwide academic communities of their disciplines, so understandably for many, any engagement with students is a distraction to the ongoing development of their careers.

Some enlightened so-called ‘research universities’ even go so far as to make arrangements whereby their outstanding research staff are excused from teaching altogether so that they may concentrate exclusively on their research.

The result is that, apart from the occasional hasty post-lecture meeting, students rarely if ever, enjoy a one-to-one relationship with research-focused academic staff.

Also, those academic staff who really like teaching and greatly enjoy the dynamic of developing their students in their discipline through teaching and individual academic support, get left behind and are often disheartened by their lack of career progress.

In all the university disciplines, whether in professional, scientific or humanities faculties, the basics of higher education have not changed, and students learn these basics through inspired, enthusiastic lecturers who are gifted teachers.

Universities in different countries and within countries have very different missions. It is surely absurd to lump them all together in this global game that only benefits those who come out on top while higher education in general loses.

Dr John Kelly is a professor emeritus and former registrar/deputy president of University College Dublin in Ireland, former executive director of the Irish Fulbright programme and of the Ireland Canada University Foundation. He was chairman of the international higher education advisory committee in Directorate General 22 for Higher Education of the European Union, and a founder member of the European University Association’s Council.