Friday, 10 July 2015

Global Stamp Collecting

When the history of the early twenty first century comes to be written, one creative form will be seen to have dominated this fledgling millennium above all others: the creation and curation of lists. 
Future generations, clothed entirely in technical fibre and accessorising implausible eyewear, will laugh in disbelief at our obsession with comparing and ranking one thing against another. 

They'll hold up crumbling back copies of the Independent and marvel at the way it advised, straight-faced, on the '11 best pouffes', the '17 best scented candles', and the '7 best Welsh interiors'. They'll access the TripAdvisor archive to giggle at the rank of 117 restaurants in Hounslow and the top-rated visitor attraction in Lowestoft (the East Anglia Transport Museum, since you ask).

But those bright young future people will save their loudest laugh for global league tables of universities. Whilst comparing pouffes, candles and Welsh interiors is relatively harmless, and the effect of crowning the East Anglia Transport Museum the best place to go in the wider Lowestoft region is somewhat localised, global league tables deliver a double whammy of being both corrosive and pointless.
I know that that may sound harsh. I know that lots of intelligent people spend an awful lot of time doing an awful lot of work on these. They helpfully illustrate the data through visualisations, and regions of the globe mushroom and shrink to demonstrate key indicators.

But to what end? Why are they doing this? Is it, essentially, nothing more than stamp collecting? Are these tables any more valid than the breathless Top 40 pop charts that we used to tape on a Sunday night? Are they more useful than the Eurovision Song Contest? Are they any more legitimate than the finals of the X Factor?

The THE Academic Reputation Survey, on which the World University Rankings are partly based, certainly shares the same sententious tone as an international sing-off that craves credibility. 'Leading scholars from across the world and across all academic disciplines...have been selected, based on their publication record, to represent their country and their academic field in the exercise, which is the world’s largest invitation-only survey of its kind.'

Who pays attention to these league tables? What purpose do they serve? Whilst the REF, for all its myriad faults, has a point (i.e. to distribute QR funding), the global league tables seem to serve no end other than to (a) highlight long term economic trends, and (b) make some VCs feel good and some VCs feel bad. Oh, and (c) to sell a few more copies of the Times Higher, or subscriptions to the database on which the rankings are based.

I would suggest the effect on student choice is minimal. Only a small percentage of students are globally mobile. Most go to a university in their own country, if not their home region or town. In the UK, 87% of the undergraduate population is from the UK. Similarly, the effect on staff movement is probably quite small: relatively few have the luxury of a global choice of jobs.

Do the rankings, then, have an effect on research? Do academics only collaborate with those in the top 200? Do editors note the position of an author's institution before accepting an article for publication? Do funders quietly check the ranking of a PI's university before giving the nod to the grant? I hope - I believe - not. It would be a travesty if an author or PI was judged on the position of their institution in a global ranking rather than on the independent quality of their work.

Thus, the only real purpose of these ranks is to give some sort of millennial, list-based context to the environment in which we work, and to provide some validity to claims of excellence by the PR departments of the bigger, richer, or older universities. Like the market research that validates the fact that '8 out of 10 owners say their cats prefer it,' the rankings offer spurious science in the service of commercial ends. And if there's one thing the world doesn't need right now, as our laughing descendants would tell us, it's more lists or spurious science.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight magazine in April 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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