The (Other) Forbes List: University Rankings and the Educational Experience

A version of this opinion piece has been published in the Australian newspaper, here.

University rankings have become an important but contentious element in how Australia’s higher education is being viewed, presented and assessed. Increasingly the ranking systems themselves are also jostling for position. On the world stage, the Times Higher Education Supplement’s league tables compete with the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Graduate School of Education at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, updated just last week.

Prospective students and their families in America have long relied on assessments provided by weekly news magazine, the U.S. News and World Report. This more consumer-oriented ranking now has a competitor for the first time in Forbes Magazine, which has just released its own list of the top 500 or so (of over 4,000) Colleges and Universities in the United States.

While USNWR tended to weight issues such as reputation, exclusivity and endowment size in what is arguably a circular and somewhat arid set of variables, Forbes’ has been willing to ask educational questions, or at least to attempt them. Its method, developed by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, combines measures such as graduation rates with more glossy features like numbers of Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships. It also puts significant emphasis on student evaluations of teachers. While there are questionable elements of their formula, Forbes’ method and their list is provoking a necesssary debate about what really constitutes the best overall tertiary education.

The results, or at least the rankings, are remarkable. While a series of prestigious private universities has appeared more or less where expected in the Forbes list, with Princeton at the head, some major players have been handed scathing report cards. In particular, many large public universities have been ranked in terms far below where both the USNWR and the Shanghai Jiao Tong’s ARWU place them. So the University of Wisconsin-Madison will presumably emphasize their ARWU ranking of 15 among American universities rather than the Forbes rating of 335, and UCLA will prefer its Shanghai-derived placement at 11 to the extra digit from Forbes – 111. These contrasts seem based in significant part on the quality of the educational experience as the students and graduates themselves perceive it.

Meanwhile a series of feisty unknowns, mostly small liberal-arts colleges like Wabash in Indiana and Centre College in Kentucky, now have applicants scrambling to their web sites in the thousands after top-ten appearances in Forbes. These and other small but already-distinguished places like Swarthmore College, Wellesley, Amherst and Williams feature very prominently, but do not even qualify for ARWU rankings because they are not research universities.

The contrast between these results can be taken with salt, of course. A UNESCO-sponsored set of ‘Berlin Principles’ for constructing such league tables was assembled in 2006, in response to growing concern about potential misuse of rankings. These 16 principles emphasize the need for transparency in constructing tables, and for acknowledging that all such measures are assembled to address specific interests rather than constituting a one-stop complete university ranking system. One could say then that ARWU and Forbes are asking quite different questions, and hence complement each other.

Yet the success of those principles will lie as much in the hands of the reader or user as of the compiler. The problem for the Australian higher education scene is that the ARWU rankings in particular are often being used sweepingly and uncritically, as though they were actually a measure of university excellence rather than of research performance (and particularly of scientific and technical research at that). Australia lacks not only a Forbes-type survey but even perhaps a sense of urgency about making the educational foundations of the university experience central to assessing performance in the sector. Eventually, as it becomes available, Australian and perhaps especially international students will pay closer attention to information about the quality of the different educational experiences on offer. The leading Australian universities, and Federal policy-makers, should be particularly concerned about the fate of those large public universities – their closest analogues in the US – in the new American survey.

While the Bradley Review foreshadows increased diversity in Australian higher education, there is a danger that this current confusion of research performance and university quality will enshrine teaching and learning as a secondary set of processes. For instance the idea of a sort of “teaching-only” institution as it emerges from time to time in the local debate always seems to assume a kind of second-tier entity. In fact the teaching-focussed institution, if and when it appears in Australia, might be a powerful and attractive option. Just ask them about it at Swarthmore.


Still Waiting for the (Education) Revolution

Based on part of Trinity's submission to the Bradley Review of Higher Education.

The Federal Government's intention for Education in Australia has been described as a "revolution". For this to become a reality we have to ask genuinely radical questions, not just seek modestly revised answers to the existing ones. While our universities have great strengths, there are issues not yet being scrutinized carefully enough to ensure a really revolutionary outcome.

Australia’s higher education system is unusual for a relatively low emphasis on student experience beyond the classroom in even the most prestigious or well-resourced institutions. Australian policy and practice have tended not to acknowledge how important such elements as residential life, or cultural, sporting and political activities developed by students themselves, are for educational purposes. Pressure on resources in the sector has continued to inhibit serious challenges to such assumptions.[1] There is however an emerging conversation about issues such as student experience or engagement, which now offers an historic opportunity in conjunction with the government’s stated intention to foster a more internally diverse higher education sector.

The importance of student experience includes broad and traditional goals of universities such as the education of the whole person and/or citizen, and the more pragmatic but important industry requirements which the Review Discussion Paper identifies under the somewhat prosaic title of “generic skills”. Alongside the need for vocational skills and the pursuit of knowledge or love of learning however, we might set the very traditional connection between higher education and citizenship itself.

That connection is made in the Review Discussion Paper but largely in terms of vocational preparation and production of knowledge (1.2). It needs (also) to be made in terms of the education of persons who will contribute to professions, business or the academy, not only through expertise but through embodying and promoting values such as commitment to national and global interests, or social justice or inclusion.

While it is not easy to negotiate the shared values that might characterize Australian society, let alone its higher education sector, consideration of this possibility is important, and the opportunity timely. In practice and policy this means giving institutions the scope and the incentive to articulate their mission with questions of value, and not just vocation, in mind. The envisaged diversity for the sector could become a means for different institutions explicitly to address social inclusion, sustainability, pluralism or other more specific agendas.

An approach to the task of higher education which includes citizenship or values among the tasks and concerns of the sector does involve consideration of the formal curriculum but inevitably transcends it. It demands consideration of abilities and skills that must be developed in community life, in voluntary organizations, in service projects.

Based on international standards of best practice, the formation of citizens and the development of generic skills both require attention to the student experience itself. Students need opportunities to engage with others in projects of common interest, to be challenged through experiences of diversity, to confront problems of real life as well as of theoretical nature, and to develop communication skills. While many of these areas need to be addressed in curriculum, the restriction of consideration to the classroom or its adjunct processes would be ineffective.

In Australian institutions, student unions have been an important focus for activities of this kind outside the lecture theatre. The former government’s abolition of compulsory fees for these organizations was possible because public discourse about higher education erroneously depicted them as optional extras that could to be pursued voluntarily, if and when seen as valuable.

While a fresh approach to student-run activities and organizations would be welcome, this Review should take the opportunity to move beyond the assumption that student activities and the student experience generally lie beyond the core of the university’s activity, or can be adequately addressed solely by student organizations themselves. Rather the student experience should without exception be addressed in university strategic plans, and seen as important for consideration of funding formulae.

Another important venue for student experience or engagement has been in residential colleges and other structured communities such as halls of residence. These have had a mixed history in Australia, and not always given scope to fulfill their potential, but internationally have continued to be important centres for developing the values and skills at issue.

At the best universities around the globe, residence is very often assumed as an educational given, rather than merely a logistical challenge (as in “housing”). The increasing mobility of Australian (and of course international) students provides a strategic opportunity to reiterate the place of residential life and the necessity of governing it in terms that are in keeping with the broader mission of the university, i.e., as an integral aspect of the university educational experience, rather than purely as an incidental need.

[1] I note the remarks of Professor Ian Chubb of ANU on “The role of student housing in the higher education sector” at the recent AACUHO Conference: “if I could get ANU to be a wholly collegiate university tomorrow, I would do it”. And later “…but is it achievable? Well, no it is not”.