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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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Regulation and counting

One of the other serious challenges faced in the university is the regulation of publications, lectures and engagements according to a narrowly defined set of market principles. While it is self evident that peer review is vital for scholarly advancement, confining the academic voice to peer review has serious consequences for the democratisation of learning and for the dissemination of research in more publicly accessible forums. The reason is obvious. Once academics are only assessed and rewarded for communicating with other academics that is all they will do. In a research assessment system where one is rewarded for publishing in peer-reviewed books and journals, there is little incentive to invest in teaching, even the teaching which is part of one’s job (Taylor 2001). The incentive to teach or disseminate findings in the public sphere through public lectures, dialogues or partnerships with relevant civil society or statutory bodies (including professional bodies representing teachers and other educational workers) is negligible. There is a strange irony in the fact that a lecture given to a professional body such as head teachers involving several hundred people (600 in my own case in the autumn of 2005) or a publication of one’s lecture for that body is not counted as a relevant academic event, whereas a seminar to one’s peers where ten or twenty people (or less may attend) does count as an academic exercise (my experience at several academic conferences) and the subsequent paper is counted no matter how specialised, small or self-selecting the peer audience may be.

There are growing disincentives therefore to being a public intellectual, to share ideas with publics in one’s own society, outside the universities, to engage in public debate in newspapers, popular books or the media. While this may be the norm from the perspective of the academy, it shows how the university systematically devalues dialogue with persons and bodies other than academics. It effectively privatises learning among those who are paid-up members of the academic community be it as students or academics. The lack of dialogue with publics, apart from one’s peers, not only privatises knowledge to closed groups, it also forecloses the opportunity to have hypotheses tested or challenged from an experiential standpoint. It limits the opportunities for learning that occur when there is a dialogue between experiential and theoretical knowledge.

A further dimension to the regulatory practice of peer review is the way academics are penalised for publishing in their own language or in their own country journals. The system in the University of Oslo is an interesting example. Academics are given 1,000 Norwegian kroner for publishing an article in a Norwegian journal (i.e., in Norwegian in Norway); they are given 7,000 kroner for publishing an article in English outside of Norway. This not only threatens the scholarly vibrancy of the Norwegian language, it also strongly encourages academics to dialogue primarily with specialist academics outside their own country (Brock-Utne 2005). Academics need to publish in their own countries and in their own languages, especially in fields like the humanities and social sciences where so much of what needs to be understood is local as well as global. For this to happen such work needs to be rewarded not sanctioned.

When there is no ‘peer review’ value in engaging in public debate, there is no incentive to engage in the public sphere, to challenge ill-informed absolutisms and orthodoxies. In effect there is no incentive to publicly dissent or engage within the very institutions that are charged with the task of dissent and engagement. The reward system of academic life means that the ‘good’ academic is encouraged to become a locally silent academic in their own country, silent in the public sphere and silent by virtue of dialoguing only with academic peers outside one’s own country.

The assumption is that Irish (Finnish, Latvian, Danish, Slovenian, Maltese or other similar small country) academics will become global players and that their global profile will indirectly lead to the dissemination of their ideas in the public sphere through internationalisation. To make this kind of impact, scholars, would need to be competing in a system where there is equality of condition as there can be no equality of competition without equality of condition. Such is not the case in the higher education sector. The control of global commercial publishing is centred in the major cities of the powerful capitalist states in the world. It is naive to expect the majority of academics from minority cultures and languages to dominate the higher education market where they are minnows in competitive terms. While there are isolated exceptions, at the corporate level, powerful universities with big budgets can and do provide the best opportunities for globalisation of ideas, not least because of their massive financial reserves (reportedly several billion in the case of Harvard, see Lieberwitz 2004) and their central location within the global publishing markets (Smallwood 2001). This is not to say that scholars from other countries do not produce excellent research or publish successfully, rather it is to face the competitive global reality that those who have most resources are likely to be most successful.

One of the unforeseen negative consequences of relying on peer-reviewed systems to disseminate research knowledge is that academics will become increasingly invisible to the people who pay their salaries, and that is the taxpayers for those who work in predominantly state-funded university systems. Even if we have no interest in democratising research relations, or in being public intellectuals, there is a simple political reality that taxpayers are unlikely to fund universities if they cease to engage in a visible and accessible way with the big public issues of our time, be these housing problems, the integration of the new immigrant communities, environmental issues or protecting the rights of disabled people. Maintaining an ongoing engagement with both professional and community partners in education is an ongoing remit not only for education departments but also for faculties and schools whose research and teaching has immediate relevance outside of the university setting. If academics cease to engage they will cease to inform; they will also engender their own demise by their invisibility in the non-academic public sphere.

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