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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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Marketisation and the threat to critical voices

Another issue that must be addressed with moves towards the market is the threat marketisation poses to the very existence of critique and creativity itself. If universities are dependent increasingly on contract research, this will leave little time to develop the critical and creative conceptual frameworks that follow after contracts are finished. In contract research, there is little time to bring out articles when the project is in progress so there are layers of silencing, and indeed of exploitation, built into the whole process.[9]

Making the universities market-oriented also greatly weakens the position of the arts, humanities and critical social sciences as most research and teaching in these fields does not service the for-profit sector directly; their remit is to educate for the public sphere, for civil society and not for profit. Research in East Germany shows that when universities were restructured after unification, the departments that were most often closed in the technical universities were those involving critical social scientific disciplines, multidisciplinary programmes and women’s studies programmes (Bultmann cited in Stevenson 1999). The closure of the highly successful but also strongly critical Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Sociology Department in the University of Birmingham in 2002 is further proof of the fact that there is a serious threat to critical thought in a more marketised higher educational system (Webster 2004).

While the social sciences and critical programmes are not being closed down in Ireland, they are gradually losing status and influence as the state recedes from maintaining investment in the arts, humanities and social sciences at a rate that is remotely comparable to the physical sciences.[10] Without state investments such fields cannot flourish, as there is no serious alternative to government funding. Profit-oriented businesses have no short-term stake in funding critical theory, sociology, community development, critical social policy, cultural studies, equality studies, disability studies, adult education or women’s studies, not least because such fields of research and theory are often critical of the values and operational systems of profit-driven interests. So if the state recedes from higher education investment in new professorships and academic posts in the arts and human sciences, or invests at a very low level in critical disciplines, there is a gradual shrinking of these sectors of higher education by default if not by design. There is ample anecdotal evidence that this is happening already in Irish universities. In UCD the Chair of Equality Studies and the Chair of Disability Studies are the only two endowed professorships in the College of Humanities to be funded from outside sources (funded by philanthropic bodies and a statutory agency) in the last five years. There have been no endowments for professorships in the arts and humanities in that period while there has been a large number of endowed chairs in the College of Life Sciences and the College of Physical Sciences and Mathematics most of which are commercially funded.

Making the universities strongly market-oriented will lead also to a concentration of resources in universities outside of public control. In the USA, for example, public universities are finding it increasingly difficult to attract successful researchers and academics as they cannot offer the same salaries as private institutions (Smallwood 2001). There is challenging evidence too that increased elitism does not produce better learning or scholars. A distinction has been drawn between the ‘Prestige’ status of a university and what Brewer et al. (2002) call the ‘Reputation’ status. While prestige colleges may emphasise the highly selective profile of their student and staff intake there is evidence that this may not translate into quality education. A study of 26 private and public universities and colleges in the USA by Rand (Brewer et al. 2002) suggests that competition for prestige does not seem to improve the quality of educational delivery, while it can lead to investment in building research facilities with high maintenance and matching funds costs without clear benefits for students or society more generally.

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