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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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The implications of marketisation

That there is a major global movement to change the nature of the university’s role in society is beyond doubt (Angus 2004; Bullen et al. 2004; Rutherford 2005). It is a movement that was heralded in the early 1990s when the World Bank published its report titled Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience (2004) that promoted the idea of developing private universities, private funding for higher education, and public funding for universities subject to performance. While many working in Western and Northern universities took little notice of such a proposal, assuming it to apply to African and other poorer countries, it was a portent of what was to come for all universities.

What is notable about the change is that the university is being pressurised to change from being ‘a centre of learning to being a business organisation with productivity targets … to transfer its allegiance from the academic to the operational’ (my italics) (Doring 2002: 140 citing McNair 1997). As the operational has encoded within itself many of the values of the commercial, adopting a purely ‘operational focus’, or treating change as a purely ‘technical problem’, means that the values of the commercial sector can be encoded in the hearts of the university systems and processes almost without reflection. The move from the academic to the operational does not happen in the name of serving commercial interests or values in all countries or at all times, although it seems to have happened in this way in the UK (Rutherford 2005). Sometimes it is explicit, as in the development of joint ventures and conferences between business and the universities[6] but other times it comes in the name of efficiency, productivity and excellence. The Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation (2004) on Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy exemplifies such a trend. The Report is prominently displayed in the Irish Universities Association website (see http://www.iua.ie), under the Links with Industry section. In the section on ‘Realising the Vision’, the report outlines the actions for the Public Research System (effectively the universities and other higher educational institutions) as being to: (v) ‘Develop a national plan to increase the performance, productivity and efficiency in the higher education and public sectors’ and (vi) ‘to sustain Ireland’s commitment to building an international reputation for research excellence’. Throughout the report the development of society is equated with economic development and the latter is focused primarily on science and technology. In my own university, UCD, the Inaugural Foundation address of the new President outlining his vision for the university demonstrates a similar tendency to define excellence and performance as values in and of themselves, regardless of for what purposes excellence is achieved or how it is achieved. He called for UCD to be:

A research-intensive university where bold and imaginative educational prgrammes and excellence in teaching go hand-in-glove with a commitment to the discovery process, research and innovation; a university that is shaping agendas nationally – supporting where appropriate and challenging where warranted; a university that is truly international and truly Irish; a university where excellence is the benchmark for everything that we do, whether it be teaching, research or administration.

(Dr Hugh Brady, UCD President, Inaugural Foundation Day Address, Friday 4 November 2004, UCD O’Reilly Hall)

There is a relatively silent colonisation of the hearts and minds of academics and students happening in universities. Such a colonisation is made possible by the seemingly apolitical nature of the neo-liberal agenda; it depoliticises debates about education by hiding its ideological underpinnings in a language of economic efficiency (Giroux 2002). The changes are significant not only in terms of how they refocus research and teaching efforts in the university but also in terms of how they change the cultural life of the university. Not only is constant auditing and measuring a recipe for self-display and the fabrication of image over substance, it also leads to a type of Orwellian surveillance of one’s everyday work by the university institution that is paralleled in one’s personal life with a reflexive surveillance of the self. One is always measuring oneself up or down (Leathwood 2005). Everything one does must be measured and counted and only the measurable matters. Trust in professional integrity and peer regulation has been replaced by performance indicators. There is a deep alienation in the experience of constantly living to perform. It leads to feelings of personal inauthenticity within a culture of compliance. Externally controlled performance indicators are the constant point of reference for one’s work regardless of how meaningless they might be (Cooper cited in Rutherford 2005). Rewarding staff on a measurable item-by-item performance basis will inevitably lead to a situation where personal career interests will entirely govern academic life. It will mean that the measure of educational and research worth is increasingly one’s ability to serve the market.

While many can and do resist the aforesaid changes through personal and collective actions, the power and speed of change can make resistances seem futile and ritualistic.[7] The allegations against those who resist change are also inevitable; they are accused of blocking progress, of being anti-reform, of being university luddites who do not realise what the brave new world of the market has to offer. As there are opportunities in the market for commercialised professionals and academics (Hanlon 2000) internal division between staff in the universities is inevitable and open to exploitation by management. The power of the allegation of being opposed to ‘innovation’ means that the important difference between the positively innovative (in our own university opening up to undergraduates the opportunity to take options each year outside their main degree programme is an obvious case in point), the genuinely destructive (only rewarding staff for what can be easily measured) and the purely self serving (opposing student evaluation of courses on the part of tenured staff, or management paying large salary increases to those who are co-opted to positions of authority while at the same time seeking redundancies among low paid restaurant staff on cost grounds as has happened in UCD) is never made public. The conflict becomes polarised and the loss of what has been of value in the university is hidden behind the loss of the inessential.

The culture shift does not apply only to staff. Students’ lives are also directed increasingly to economic self-interest and credential acquisition. Student and staff idealism to work in the service of humanity is seriously diminished as universities operate as entrepreneurial, purely competitive business-oriented corporations (Elton 2000). As Harkavy has observed ‘When Universities openly and increasingly pursue commercialisation, it powerfully legitimises and reinforces the pursuit of economic self-interest by students and contributes to the widespread sense among them that they are in college solely to gain career skills and credentials’ (Harkavy 2005: 15).

A further consequence of uninterrogated marketisation is the gradual elision of the divide between the commercial and the scholarly in the research field. The merging of commerce and research is presented as both desirable and necessary and university policies are increasingly directed towards rewarding such links. The rhetoric of accelerating costs is used to drive the industry–university links agenda as the neo-liberal state attempts to extricate itself from the cost of publicly funded higher education.[8] While the University has both a need and a responsibility to work with a wide range of public and private sector interests, as a public institution the interests and values of the for-profit sector cannot drive its research. University scholarship is of its nature critical and reflexive. It is founded on the assumptions of independence and autonomy. Quite understandably, the ethical principles and priorities of the business sector are not synonymous with those of a public interest body, such as a university (Eisenberg 1987). If universities become too reliant on industry-funded research, or too beholden to the business-driven agenda of the government of today (even if it comes coded in the guise of advancing science), there is a danger that the interests of the university become synonymous with powerful vested interests. This will undermine the purposes of the university as an enlightenment institution serving the good of humanity in its entirety. It will also undermine the very independence of thought that is the trademark of university research (Blumenthal 2002; Lieberwitz 2004). It will compromise public trust in the scholarly integrity of university research and teaching. The university will become, and be seen to become, the handmaiden of a set of powerful sectoral interests. There is evidence that this is happening already in sensitive areas such as food production, genetics, biotechnology and environmental protection (Monbiot 2000).

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