In an era of disruption, do we need a resilience ranking?
Of course, rankings have continued even in the wake of the pandemic, affecting all sectors of economies, including higher education and the international mobility of students, research funding and finances. It should be noted that much of the rankings data we have pertains to pre-COVID times: the effects of the pandemic will be felt in years to come.
With this in mind, we argue that there may be a case for re-framing some of the ranking metrics, developing a complementary set, or even an entirely new schema, built around resilience or the capacity to prepare for and respond to crises, often externally driven, and to maintain core activities. This article attempts to put forward some of the key considerations associated with a resilience frame of reference.
While the pandemic seems a once in a lifetime event, it is, nevertheless, possible that we could see other kinds of significant disruptions, including from any further pandemics, other natural causes, conflict and even serious economic downturn. Preparedness and a rapid, fit for purpose response would be crucial.
The environmental sustainability field, including in particular adaptation to climate change, has vulnerability and resilience as its cornerstones. This is less obviously the case for higher education.
How to create a resilience ranking
So what could a resilience ranking framework look like for higher education? First, there should be a set of principles or criteria and accompanying metrics, including complementary quantitative and qualitative metrics. Not for a second should this task be underestimated in terms of data availability, measurement and methodology and it should be emphasised that the kinds of things we are putting forward are highly complex.
The key criteria or principles for resilience could centre on: diversification, flexibility and innovation, risk, values, value maintenance, and community outreach. The existing rankings schema touch, in part, on some of these criteria, but largely through the lens of established parameters such as papers, citations and resourcing, for instance, staff-student ratio.
The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings come closest to the types of measures that we are suggesting in driving change and innovation to meet sustainable development goals.
One of the cornerstones of resilience is, in our view, the ability to diversify revenue sources, as a prime vehicle for reducing and managing risk.
A possible measure of this is the share of income that a university derives from a particular source (for instance, a specific student cohort, specific market or specific research stream). The more specific the source, the less diverse and, arguably, less resilient, bearing in mind that, in a pandemic, it is likely that most sources of income will be adversely affected.
To that end, the amount of financial reserves that a university holds could be a complementary measure. Yet another approach could measure the degree of ‘bounce back’ or the extent to which institutions are able to financially recover from a serious, large-scale external event(s). Naturally, this bounce back would need to be considered over multiple time periods.
Flexibility and innovation
The pandemic has demonstrated that opportunities for new sources of growth, the development of new business models and organisational change are possible and indeed imperative.
As such, resilience could measure the ability of a university to continue to function with minimal disruption and to seize opportunities, in short, flexibility and innovation.
Possibilities here include the extent of shift from face-to-face learning to online, virtual student placements and qualitative statements about new or improved organisational practices and growth options that an institution has implemented.
Closely aligned to diversification and financial considerations is the effective articulation and management of risk, especially in the context of external shocks. The ability to compare the risk parameters of different organisations is naturally very context specific but is related in large measure to a university’s underlying competitive position.
Some assessment of an institution’s risk profile on a traffic light basis, with relative weights and judgments attached to cover risk parameters, such as finance or reputation (drawing on existing academic reputation surveys, for example), may be a possibility.
Values maintenance is an important component of a resilient institution. Values maintenance is the extent to which an institution holds firm to its underlying mission and vision, even in the face of disruption and the constraints that brings.
This very subjective criteria can be measured by (a) the presence of a mission or vision statement in the first instance and (b) the progress against targets in the mission or vision. As with the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, this would be a qualitative measure.
Value or value for money criteria from a student perspective could be addressed in a number of ways: a continued strong student experience, employability, and the percentage of alumni who return or continue in the ‘home institution’.
There is now a treasure trove of social media data and analytics that can be mined to measure and assess student sentiment.
Other approaches to value centre on teaching productivity (students/teaching expenditure) and research productivity (papers or citations/research expenditure), as developed, for example, by the economist Keith Houghton. These are metrics that are more readily available in the public domain.
Community and outreach
It would be reasonable to suggest that most institutions now embrace the ‘third mission’ to promote community engagement and local agency. Undoubtedly this is difficult to measure, but one potential technique could be through a community-based survey instrument (of course, what constitutes a community would need to be clearly defined).
The QS employer reputation survey enables analysis of feedback on an institution beyond the purely academic domain, while the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking calls for evidence relating to partnerships, community outreach and engagement. Building on these approaches through, for example, pilots could be considered.
The pandemic has radically altered the economic and social landscape. For higher education, the challenges have been plenty, but so too have the significant opportunities for rejuvenation and regeneration.
While, on the one hand, it can be argued that COVID-19 is an aberration, its impact is so pervasive that it warrants a different way of considering institutional responses. Moreover, the possibility of extreme events of many different types in the future cannot be discounted.
A number of the criteria and metrics proposed do lend themselves to collaboration, especially in relation to innovation, new business and organisational models. It is important to recognise that, at times of severe disruption, while institutions may be in competition with each other, there could be a prevailing sense of ‘we are all in it together’. At the very least, new frames of reference facilitate learning from each other and enhanced communities of practice.
Dr Anand Kulkarni is associate director of planning, performance and risk at Victoria University, Australia. The views expressed are the author’s.