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International league tables and rankings in higher education

An appraisal[1]

Author - Kathleen Lynch


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If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.

(Morrison 2001)

Public universities were established to promote independence of intellectual thought, to enable scholars to work outside the control of powerful vested interest groups. Scholars are artists of the intellect, granted the freedom from necessity to write and research on the presumption that they do so in a manner that is disinterested in the purest sense of that term. It is widely understood and assumed that academic independence and objectivity is the guarantor of the public interests; it is expected that university scientists and scholars equate their self-interest, in research terms, with the public interest. While the public know that research conducted by profit-driven operations and powerful interests within the government and the state often is subject to political interpretation, in line with the interests of the funders, it is assumed, rightly, that this does not happen in the university.

There is therefore a widespread public trust and belief that the university employs scholars whose task it is to undertake research and teach for the public good. There is a hope and expectation that those who are given the freedom to think, research and write will work for the good of humanity in its entirety. Consequently, university research has been funded by the public purse for the greater part, even in countries such as the USA. It is estimated that between 70 and 80 per cent of funding for university life sciences research in the USA is public funding (Blumenthal 2002).

Because the university is designed to serve the weakest and most vulnerable in society as well as powerful economic interests, it has a major responsibility to inform and vivify the work of the public sector, and the voluntary, community and care sectors, both locally and globally. It is the lynchpin of civil society, laying the intellectual foundations for cultural, political, affective, ethical and social life, as much as for economic life. It is vital for the university sector to create alliances therefore with those sectors of society that share its core values and public service purposes.

Unless the university plays a central role in building the civil infrastructures of society by advancing thinking in cognate fields, economic developments in the future will be in jeopardy. The civil, public and care infrastructure of society is the lifeblood that courses through the veins of economic development. It is the civil, public and care institutions that drive the heart of the body public. They ensure that the services, resources and understandings that are vital for change and development are renewed and reinvigorated on an ongoing basis.

Instead of yielding to the pressures to simply service the market, and to import its values and methods unquestioningly into higher education, universities both collectively and individually are in a powerful position to challenge the new neo-liberal orthodoxies. Academics have the space and the capability to work collaboratively to create strong alliances and networks not only among themselves but also with the entire civil society sector whose interests are so central to the public interest, and whom the universities have a duty to serve.

The university operates in a complex cultural location in many respects. It is at the one time a product of cultural practice and a creator of culture; it is a powerful interest and a creator of interests. There is a sense in which its intellectual independence is always at risk, given its reliance on external funding from many sources, and yet its history grants it the capability to reclaim its own independence (Delanty 2001). To maintain its independence, the university needs to declare its distance from powerful interest groups, be these statutory, professional or commercial. It must not only do this rhetorically but also constitutionally. Maintaining a critical distance from the institutions of power in society is vital if one is to protect the public interest role of the university.

As Europe has become increasingly dependent on higher education to drive the social, political, cultural and economic infrastructure of society, access to higher education is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for survival. We also need to challenge the neo-liberal agenda in education, not least because higher education is increasingly a necessity for the majority rather than a privilege for the few.

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