I feel like I’m watching the ads before the movie, and even when the movie finally begins there are product placements everywhere. When I tell academics that my research is about rankings and media, they all have stories about rankings regardless of where they live and work. There is the department head who sent out a note congratulating everyone on being a top medical school, and then sent another note a year later explaining that a decline in the school’s ranking was due to flawed methodology. Then there is the university that rebranded based on being No. 1 in a national ranking — only to go down and require expensive rebranding the year after. I’ve lost count of how many times I hear university leaders start with something like, “I know there are problems with the rankings, but I’m thrilled to tell you we are up in the rankings.” That there is cognitive dissonance is not surprising. Academic leaders are supposed to know what good research is, and most know popular rankings are not it. But a top ranking brings resources and prestige. There are small rankings, with influence akin to home movies and then there are the blockbusters including the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the QS Rankings. A plethora of books, blogs ,and reports detail how easy the rankings are to game and the narrowness of how excellence is measured.
Rankings owned by media or other multinational corporate entities have a responsibility to investors, not the public good. The Times Higher Education Ranking, for example, is owned by TES, which is owned by TSL, which in turn is owned TPG, one of the world’s largest private equity firms.
Embedded in popular rankings is the assumption that any world-class institution focuses on entrepreneurial fields, has famous academics (particularly Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners) in their midst and lots of resources at their disposal. What gets left out in the formulas used by popular rankings is the responsibility of universities to the public good. Reputation can be bought. The QS produces international and national ranking table but, for an audit and licensing fee a universities can apply to be a QS star.
There are no indicators for how a university stands up against oppression in their institution and outside it, or how it is part of expanding conversations about the crisis facing the planet in particular inequality and climate change.
University leaders are in a tough situation. There is the longstanding narrative of most universities that they contribute to the public good, but there is also the business imperative. Visibility is central to universities dealing with public funding cuts, and visibility is through media. The result is that university leaders frequently enter into a Faustian bargain. They legitimize popular rankings through their own branding materials, and positive mention of rankings through speeches and media encounters. They pay through staff hours to provide data to rankers, and often even pay for ads on ranking websites. In exchange, universities get the visibility that brings in money, award-winning students and faculty — but at what cost?