The Case Against University Rankings

In his letter to the Irish Times on 7 September 2017, Dr John Kelly, Professor Emeritus at the University College Dublin, lamented about the distorting effects of university rankings.

Here’s a summary of what he had to say:

“The predominant criterion of these rankings is the performance of the university in research, as measured by its research publications in international academic journals. The rankings say almost nothing of the universities’ performances in teaching and education. The rankings are simply commercial ventures and there is no evidence that quantifies, either from academic metrics or philosophical analyses, what value they are contributing to higher education.

Their main effect is their influence on the choice of university by wealthy migrant students, typically from China and India, who have no difficulty in paying the annual fees of $50,000 in the top-ranking universities. This is assisted by the unfortunate situation whereby the attraction of these high fee-paying students has become a core and seemingly irreversible component in the financial management of universities everywhere, including Ireland.

A secondary and more damaging effect of these rankings lies in the competition they promote between teaching and research in the mission of the university. A young academic joining a university will quickly realise that the way up the academic promotion ladder, and international academic status, is through research rather than teaching, and the temptation for a lecturer must be that, having given the prescribed lectures, to close the door and get on with the research and their publications. It is a temptation that most academic lecturers do not yield to, and they maintain the balance between their teaching and research, and derive great pride and satisfaction in their interaction with students within and outside the lecture theatre.

Research, of course, is important and vital to effective teaching, but it is secondary in the true mission of the university, a message more important today than ever before.”

So should universities boycott all these rankings, as Dr Kelly suggested, even though he acknowledged that it would not be possible as “the rankings are now a world sport in which universities everywhere must compete”?

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