Much has been written about the remarkable rise of global university rankings from their initial appearance in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai) tables in 2003. The examination of all things rankings, however, has arguably outpaced its conceptual uptake. This paper addresses this imbalance by reviewing prestige audits as resource management tools and status allocation measures. The paper argues that audit ambition has courted audit failure in both dimensions. The resource management justification underestimates the challenge of devising reliable proxy variables across international higher education sectors, organizational types, and disciplinary/departmental objectives. Evidential data sets are duly recast as data narratives that compete with each other and cloud the ordinal clarity aspired to in ranking tables. The status competition approach generates Matthew effects and encourages factor gaming. Positional goods investments are also socially and economically wasteful. In either strict (rigid) or relaxed (normed) form, finally, their zero-sum logic fails to account for private and public externalities. The paper closes with an appeal to soft-variable evaluations in higher education contexts as well as to closer scrutiny of the vocabulary informing both quantitative and qualitative assessments.
Tellingly, this same argument was made by Simon Marginson (2004) for the increased competitiveness of international higher education more generally.
Enders (2014) and Lynch (2014) are notable exceptions. Given the rapidly expanding literature on global rankings, however, these remain islands of attention.
This is not to argue, of course, that differences in the weighting of prestige markers (the citations focus of the Shanghai rankings, say, versus U-Multirank's reliance on informational surveys) are irrelevant for the type, audience, and range of the quality assessment mechanism.
It might be noted that there is today a cottage industry of for-profit seminars, workshops, and consultancy programs with the aim of helping rankings' aspirants climb the competitive ladder. This entrepreneurial development parallels and abets the existing auxiliary market of for-profit conferences and pay-to-publish peer-reviewed journal articles. Scholarly attention to these shadow players in what Rajani Naidoo (2016) has recently termed the ‘competition fetish’ of the higher numerology is timely.
Acronyms litter the accreditation landscape. Here, TEQSA stands for the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency; REF is the Research Excellence Framework designed by the different UK state funding bodies; and ERA is the national Excellence in Research for Australia framework for post-secondary accreditation.
Or, as Kerr anecdotally remarked, the multiversity must solve the ‘administrative problems’ of sex for the students, parking for the faculty, and athletics for the alumni. Or might it be parking for the alumni, athletics for the students, and sex for the faculty?
In their formulation, high-demand, high-status fields are those that make mon(k)ey, study money, or prepare their graduates to earn multiples of it. To which the institutionally savvy, as in the fable, presumably neither see, nor hear, nor speak evil.
In the United States, the National Research Council (2011) program ranking is a case in point for these and related problems encountered in comprehensive metrics. Long criticized for its methodological density, the most recent (2010) National Research Council release omitted reputational surveys. This led to the charge by Jonathan Cole, a consulting National Research Council board member, that the report had been eviscerated as an index of department quality, as well as to complaints about the adequacy of the ranking's data-sourcing (Stigler, 2010; Cole, 2011).
U-Multirank (2017), which rates rather than ranks, offers an interactive assessment tool that permits bespoke comparisons of sets of institutions. This addresses the problem of data pooling, but still assumes reliable data sourcing.
Note, however, that dilution of the credential will not necessarily trigger a reduction in enrolments in the short or medium term. A greater number of graduates may erode the distinction of the degree, but it also levies pressure on prospective matriculants to avoid the stigma of belonging to a shrinking pool of non-graduates. This counterintuitive observation helps explain the coincidence of a dramatic increase in the cost of an undergraduate credential (a so-called ‘Veblen effect‘) and its parallel decrease as a prestige barometer.
There are circumstances in which positive consumption somewhere causes negative consumption elsewhere: Ego is starving but Alter knowingly buys the last cake in the village and refuses to share, and so forth.
‘If everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees better’ (Hirsch, 1977, p.2). But what directs the gaze in the first place?
Indeed, a grazing herd of academic doctors of this or that tends to dilute the status grant of the degree, giving rise to various forms of inverse snobbery. Yet there is also an engagement with ideas, knowledge, and creativity not reducible to such explicanda.
An elaboration of their respective positions is beyond the scope of this analysis. In brief, Sen argues for a more holistic or Aristotelian notion of meaningful choice-making (opportunities) as a foundation for individual and social welfare. Welfare economics, he contends, relies too heavily on classical liberal notions of rational choice and policy norming (sum ranking) that restrict wellbeing to material resource measurements (standard of living). Nussbaum (2000) provides a set of cross-cultural entitlements (affiliation, play, control over one's environment, etc.).