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News Feature: The Resilience of University Rankings

March 14, 2023, #32

Julian Hamann and Leopold Ringel have written a blog post on “University rankings and their critics – a symbiotic relationship?”¹ where they examine why “university rankings have proven a resilient feature of academic life”¹. Rankings have different significance in the various regions and countries. For many US universities a high ranking leads to more students and more tuition income, but even in countries where the universities do not charge tuition (Germany, for example) the status of a high ranking matters. Nonetheless, as the authors note, a number of “prestigious law schools and medical schools announced their withdrawal from the U.S. News & World Report rankings.”¹ One critique is that rankings “produce and consolidate inequalities, instill opportunistic behavior by those trying to anticipate ranking criteria, and infringe upon the independence of higher education and science.”¹ Another criticism is “that the measures in use are too crude and simplistic, methodology and data not transparent enough, and neither validity [n]or reliability sufficient.”¹ The rankings producers like US News have several defences. One is to “downplay their own influence”¹, which is somewhat disingenuous. The second defence “claims a broad demand for evaluations of university performance, demonstrates scientific proficiency, or temporalizes rankings by framing them as always needing improvement.”¹ The demand for the rankings is to an extent created by the rankings producers themselves, and it is arguably also the byproduct of a competitive society that views academic performance in sports terms with winners and losers. The authors talk about “[c]onstructive conversations between rankers and critics”¹ They describe the dialog between producers and critics as a “discursive phenomenon”¹, and argue that “university rankings develop a quality we have coined discursive resilience: the ability to engage with critics in a productive way in order to navigate a potentially hostile environment.”¹ The authors do not view the withdrawals from the rankings as suggesting the “end of the ranking regime”¹, but only as an “opportunity to build discursive resilience.”¹ It could also become an opportunity for universities to rethink the utility of ranking systems in general, and to ask whether this kind of competition promotes science in the broadest sense.

 

1: Hamann, Julian, and Leopold Ringel. 2023. ‘University Rankings and Their Critics – a Symbiotic Relationship?’ Impact of Social Sciences (blog). 6 February 2023. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2023/02/06/university-rankings-and-their-critics-a-symbiotic-relationship/.

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