Offline: The silencing of the South
League tables are addictive. From football to motorsport, tennis to golf, we relish following who is up and who is down. Understandably so, given that sport is fiercely competitive between individuals and teams. But universities? Provosts and Presidents of our greatest higher education institutions obsess over their rankings. Three dominate—the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). These metrics of achievement should be challenged. They silence scholars from countries with fewer financial resources than their wealthy neighbours. Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari and David McCoy from the International Institute for Global Health at the United Nations University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have published a compelling deconstruction of the ARWU and THE rankings. They propose possible reforms, but they also suggest that these rankings might be rejected entirely—“there are valid reasons for removing the power of rankings to shape higher education policy and university policy from the control of private for-profit industry”. They make a strong case. But instead of erasure, rankings could also be used as a powerful means for holding universities accountable to their broader social mission.
Nassiri-Ansari and McCoy frame their analysis within the present movement to decolonise global health. A central concern of that movement is power—the steep inequalities in power between high-income universities and those in what these authors call the “Global South”. Both the ARWU and THE rankings report an extreme dominance of institutions in the US and UK: 41% and 44%, respectively, among the top 200 universities. In the ARWU, only a fifth of universities are located in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The THE is even more exclusive—only 12·5% of higher education institutions are to be found in these regions. The criteria these rankings use to judge performance are astonishingly elitist. The ARWU counts Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals among staff and alumni (30% of the total score). Publishing in just two journals, Nature and Science, accounts for another 20%. The THE rankings are less reductive. Although citation impact still counts for a high contribution (30%), teaching is given credit—reputation (15%), PhDs awarded (6%), staff–student ratios (4·5%), doctoral-to-bachelor’s ratios (2·25%), and teaching income per faculty member (2·25%); I should note that The Lancet‘s publisher, Elsevier, provides data to THE on citations and reputation. Nassiri-Ansari and McCoy document multiple “limitations and flaws” in these rankings, attacking and undermining their superficially rigorous and objective presentation. Data quality is not independently validated by either ranking institution. The use of surveys to measure reputation is open to serious bias. An emphasis on anglophone journals produces an unfair disadvantage to non-English language scholars. There is no effort to measure the social impact of a university. Sciences are unfairly privileged over humanities. And the idea that an institution as complex as a university can be accurately summarised by a single metric is patent nonsense. Rankings in their current form encourage an unhealthy “game of winners and losers” and competition rather than collaboration between universities. In the context of the decolonial debate, rankings reinforce a “colonial hierarchy”, encouraging a brain drain from South to North. In global health, “universities from the US and UK have a disproportionate influence over the formulation of global health policies”.
It is surely time to end the current university ranking system and replace it with something better. Something that measures what we really believe universities are for—not an endless stream of papers in highly cited journals, not a collection of prizes that reflects the good fortune of a few, and not metrics that reward crude measures of “productivity” and financial income. Victor Dzau has written about the importance of academic medicine recognising its societal responsibilities. If we know, for example, that gender-diverse research teams produce more novel scientific ideas (and we do), then rankings might consider monitoring gender diversity in universities. At a minimum, university rankings should be helping to create spaces for scholars worldwide to have a voice and a platform. If we truly believe in equity, we need to resist and repudiate the current discriminatory and exclusionary system of university rankings. It is a system that stains the reputation of scholarship.