David Cohen: The outsized importance of university rankings

3:18 pm on 13 July 2020

By David Cohen*

Opinion - What a year it has turned into. Statues are coming down, there's violence (and a virus) in the air, and the University of Waikato recently tumbled to 375th place in the latest rankings of the "best" international institutions of higher learning.

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Victoria University. Photo: 123rf.com

What is the world coming to? Ruin and damnation, some might think. Honestly, if Satan in his diabolical cruelty had invented a bigger waste of journalistic time than one or other of these ubiquitous ranking exercises purporting to show the most influential celebrities, the most respected community leaders, the most delicious restaurants, the most powerful business chiefs, or, especially, the most wonderful academic institutions, it's hard to imagine.

Many years ago the Daily Mirror in Britain effectively satirised the conceit by producing a list of the country's 100 least important people. The names of those who made the final cut are as hard to recall now as they were to recognise then, but it was the cheeky editorial thought that counted, not least in respect of who's top of the uni pops.

Like other media outlets that publish similar university rankings, including US News & World Report, Maclean's in Canada and Britain's Financial Times, the one published by the higher education consultancy firm QS Quacquarelli Symonds bills itself as accurately reflecting the shifting academic excellence of universities by quantifying their current achievements.

In the latest QS exercise, the University of Auckland inched up a bit from last year, up two slots to 81. The University of Otago (184) stayed more or less the same as last time. Most of the country's other six universities did rather less auspiciously, as was the case with a majority their Australian counterparts. Overall, the top three places went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Harvard Universities respectively.

In a statement, Auckland's vice chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, said the result ensured her academic institution would remain relevant "to our global communities and stakeholders". But what does this actually mean and how does it all work anyway?

The QS rankings and others like it differ from, say, "best" restaurant listings, which can usually be whipped up on the rather less-than-scientific basis of their compilers' recent dining experiences. By contrast, university rankings involve objective-sounding metrics such as student/teacher ratios, endowment values, classroom sizes and citations.

Typically, the weighting given to each category arbitrarily changes a little each year. This accounts for what would otherwise seem like rather puzzling annual institutional shifts we see from year to year: this time it's Imperial College London leading the pack, next time it's Tokyo University or the University of Oxford.

After all, somewhere like Oxford has been in business for the better part of 1000 years. It enrolled its first foreign student (Emo of Friesland) back in 1190. Has the institutional bounty of the dreaming spires wildly veered on an annual basis ever since? Really?

So, for all the lofty methodological talk, what these exercises almost invariably boil down to is that size really does matter when it comes to endowments. We can also see that institutions that nab a greater share of the public treasury tend to rate more highly than those who don't - hence the Universities of Otago and Auckland doing rather better than places like AUT or Lincoln.

Despite such thoroughly unsurprising results, however, universities in New Zealand tend to devote a lot of attention to these rankings, believing as they do that even the tiniest shift in placing offers a bellwether for the greater funding and, especially, increased enrolments from lucrative fee-paying foreign students.

This enthusiasm became a bit painful to witness a couple of years ago when the Victoria University of Wellington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars unsuccessfully petitioning for a name-change. The concern was that intending foreign students scanning the pop charts might confuse their institution (number 265 in the latest survey) with Melbourne's Victoria University (365) or even Canada's University of Victoria (601).

Queen Victoria, perhaps, would not have been amused. And neither was our current government.

What's also not institutionally amusing, of course, is the international student market that local universities pull out all the stops to attract here is largely out of the running right now and may remain so for the foreseeable future.

If demonstrations and pandemics really are the most critical issues of the day right now, perhaps the caper would be for compilers of ranking exercises to introduce new metrics of viral safety and general wokeness into the mix. Who knows? New Zealand's institutions of higher learning could yet do even better by those measures, too.

* David Cohen is a Wellington journalist who writes frequently on academic affairs.