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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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Finding a voice: sites of resistance

In most European countries there is a long history of democratic struggle over education, including university education. Consequently the discourses on university education are not singular. While the neo-liberal code is dominant, there are alternative narratives, narratives of equality and inclusion that challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. These narratives are part of the official EU rhetoric and are given expression in various treaties and directives. Albeit subordinated, such discourses provide opportunities for challenging the market-driven agenda. They provide spaces for resistances and opportunities for redefining the purposes of the university.

In Ireland, for example, there is a growing political demand to promote diversity in the university body, not only in terms of the socio-economic profile of students, but also in terms of their age, ethnicity, disability and citizenship status (HEA 2005). The Irish Universities Association recognises the importance of being inclusive and lists ‘Widening Participation’ as one of its core objectives. The European University Association, representing 30 National Rectors’ Conferences and 537 individual European universities, in the Gratz Declaration signed in Leuven in July 2003, has strongly stated its objections and concerns regarding the operation of the GATS (General Agreement in Trade and Services) in relation to higher education. It outlines as a basic principle the fact that ‘Higher Education exists to serve the public interest and is not a “‘commodity”, a fact which WTO Member States recognised through UNESCO and other international and multilateral bodies, conventions and declarations’. It goes on to endorse UNESCO’s 1998 World Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century and states that

The mission of higher education is to contribute to the sustainable development and improvement of society as a whole by: educating highly qualified graduates able to meet the needs of all sectors of human activity; advancing, creating and disseminating knowledge through research; interpreting, preserving and promoting cultures in the context of cultural pluralism and diversity; providing opportunities for higher learning throughout life; contributing to the development and improvement of education at all levels; and protecting and enhancing civil society by training young people in values which form the basis of democratic citizenship and by providing critical and detached perspectives in the discussion of strategic choices facing societies.


There is a growing recognition too that there is a contradiction between pursuing a business-oriented and privatised approach to university education and promoting access for disadvantaged students. This is most clearly seen in the former socialist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics where there were no private third-level institutions in the early 1990s but now there are several hundred. The evidence from Eastern Europe including Russia is that privatisation has a negative impact on equality in terms of student intake, not least because of the absence of an adequate system of financial supports (Steier 2003). As noted by Steier (writing within a World Bank context) ‘increased institutional choice for students is meaningful only for those who can afford to pay tuition at private institutions or for those with access to financial aid’ (Steier 2003: 163).

It is clear from the above, that maintaining diversity in intake is a key policy objective if universities are to implement the Gratz Declaration and the UNESCO Declaration that they have signed up to. They cannot adopt market norms that will undermine their duty to educate all sectors of society. It is our duty and our opportunity to hold our universities to account in terms of these agreements.

Rather than being bewildered and overwhelmed by neo-liberal rhetoric we need to build a counter-hegemonic discourse, a discourse that is grounded in the principles of democracy and equality that are at the heart of the public education tradition. We need to reinvigorate our vision of the university as a place for universal learning and for challenging received orthodoxies. The work of Paulo Freire (1972), the great Brazilian educator of adults, offers such a challenge even though it would move us far from whence we came in terms of university education as it would require us to recognise the importance of mutuality in learning, the importance of creating a dialogue between student and teacher, between researchers and those being researched. It is a challenge to democratise the social relations of teaching, learning and research production and exchange, a challenge that many traditional university educators may well not feel comfortable with. Yet the question is: Do we have much choice if we are to create new visions for our universities? If we have regard for the public service purposes of the university, for our responsibility to educate all members of society and educate them for all activities in society, including non-commercial activities be it in the arts, in politics, in caring work or in public service work itself, then we must radically alter the ways in which we define university education. We need to create allies for public education in the civil society sphere and in the public sector sphere so that the public interest values of the universities can be preserved. As noted elsewhere, such a move would radically alter the way we educate and the way we do research (Lynch 1999a).

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