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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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Making markets of higher education

With the decline in the value of manufacturing industry in terms of investment returns, and the rise of the value of the services sector in both scale and profitability, there is an ongoing movement to define education as a tradeable service worldwide. The pressure to move education from a public service to a tradeable service is very much part of the ideology of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS)agreement the purpose of which is to liberalise all service in all sectors of the economy globally (Robertson et al. 2002). So far the EU has resisted the opening up of sectors such as health and education to such trading but these sectors are now being threatened by the Bolkestein Directive. One of the aims of this Directive (named after is proposer, the Dutch EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein) is to make all services in Europe open to market competition. While it was voted down in the European Parliament in February 2005, it has returned to the political agenda of the EU after the voting down of the EU Constitution in both France and the Netherlands.

The reasons for wanting to make education a tradeable service are quite simple. In 2000 UNESCO estimated that education was a $2 trillion global ‘industry’. There is definite potential for profitable returns if such a service can be traded, especially among those sectors of society that can afford to pay for it. This possibility is recognised by the international stockbrokers Merrill Lynch.[4] In The Book of Knowledge Merrill Lynch define education as a service that presents one of the major new opportunities for investors in profit terms (Moe et al. 1999). The rise of influential and financially endowed social movements in the USA to promote for-profit higher education, (as an example see http://www.ecs.org, Callahan 2001 and Covington 2001 for a critique of this trend), and the fact that there are 650 for-profit colleges and universities is a clear indication that for-profit trading in higher education is well underway (Morey 2004). The largest of the for-profit universities, the University of Phoenix in Arizona, has been trading for several years and now has 174,900 students. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly given the profit-orientation of its operations, it has very few tenured faculty staff: there are only 285 full-time faculty, but a sizeable and easily dispensable body (17,0000) of adjunct or part-time staff (Morey 2004). The casualisation of the academic and teaching staff is an inevitable correlate of for-profit education.

The move to create markets in education is not limited to the for-profit sector of higher education. There are many ways in which academic capitalism is fostered through the funding of research (patenting) and in ancillary services associated with college entry such as tutoring and test preparation (Lynch and Moran 2006). There are also school chains operating as businesses not only in the USA but also in a number of South American and countries and in Europe. Commercial sponsorship of school services in return for the guaranteed use of commercially sponsored materials is widespread, as is the privatising of support services in schools and colleges, and the creation of internal markets within colleges. The move to allow schools to become mini companies and to take over other schools under the UK Education Act (2002) is another manifestation of the influence of the market practices in education.

The move to create global league tables for universities is symbolically the most powerful indicator that market values have been incorporated into the university sector. What is significant is that this ranking has been undertaken by commercial operations (newspapers in a number of cases), and universities themselves have little control over their operation. There are commercial rankings for a number of years in the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK (Dill and Soo 2005). While some ranking systems can and do take into account official evaluations such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and the Teaching Quality Assurance (TQA) rating in the UK, the rankings are far from systematic and scientific (Tight 2000). Commercial rankings or League Tables exist not only within countries, they have also started to operate between countries. The most famous of these global rankings is that undertaken by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In 2003 and again in 2004, the technological university focused heavily on engineering sciences developed a ranking system for evaluating universities worldwide in terms of their relevance to their postgraduate and research needs. The criteria by which they evaluated the top 500 universities are listed in the Table 1.

Despite the narrowness and selectivity of the Jiao Tong ranking scheme, in particular its neglect of student learning experiences and its blatant bias against the arts and humanities and most of the social sciences, it has been widely cited as providing a legitimate evaluation of universities.[5] The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) has initiated a similar index and this is riven with even more biases and arbitrary evaluations. The THES index is in breach of the most basic scientific principle: access to the methodology employed is not published in detail. See Table 2.

What is evident from both these developments is the fact that there is now a clear international attempt to develop a League Table of World Universities.

Despite their proliferation, however, league tables direct us away from many of the core values that are central to Uuniversity work, including quality teaching, outreach, inclusion and research which is of worth not only to our careers but to humanity in its entirety. They focus higher education attention on a narrow set of internal market considerations, particularly on what can be measured (Taylor 2001). None of the so-called league tables focus on the quality of student experiences, none of them assess universities in terms of their inclusivity and respect for diversity. They strongly discourage us from focusing on access as they are fundamentally about ensuring that universities become even more elite in their orientation (Tight 2000; Dill and Soo 2005).

To date the formation of the evaluation scheme for the appraisal of the universities has been generally outside of the control of European universities. It has been especially outside the control of those working in the arts, humanities and social sciences as their work is clearly not defined as central to the national development agenda of agencies such as the OECD. The attitude of the OECD to the arts, humanities and social science is evident from the OECD review of higher education in Ireland in 2004 (OECD 2004). Throughout the report on Irish higher education the focus is on developing a skilled work force for the economy. There is no reference in the body of the report to the role of the universities in developing the civil, political, social or cultural institutions of society, either locally or globally. Interestingly, the terms of reference for the OECD group do make reference to the importance of identifying strategies for developing skills and research needs ‘for economic and social development’ but there is no reference to these objectives in the published report.

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