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.

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