University rankings undermine access policies, conference hears

Impossible to compete ‘unless you have got billionaires on your doorstep’

A meeting of university presidents and international policy experts at DCU heard that commercial rankings are at risk of skewing academic priorities.

A meeting of university presidents and international policy experts at DCU heard that commercial rankings are at risk of skewing academic priorities.

 

University league tables are incentivising higher education institutions to chase international talent at the expense of local students from disadvantaged backgrounds, third-level analysts have warned.

A meeting of university presidents and international policy experts at DCU heard that commercial rankings are at risk of skewing academic priorities because they do not capture performance in areas such as broadening access to students from lower-socio economic backgrounds.

Prof Julian Beer, pro-vice chancellor at Birmingham City University, said it was impossible for institutions to compete at the very top of global rankings “unless you have got billionaires on your doorstep that will endow your institution with a lot of money”.

Universities should instead pick out specific areas where they could “create value in the minds of your stakeholders”. While this very often would not register in rankings initially, he believed “league tables will catch up with you”.

He was speaking at the Times Higher Education summit of universities aged under 50 years, which coincided this week with the release of another batch of international rankings.

Prof Beer said the league tables incentivised universities to be more research intensive which carried that risk that “you will narrow your gate in terms of who you accept in your institution”.

“That’s a real fault of the current system of how we reward universities.”

Prof David Lloyd, president of University of South Australia, said it had risen to 35 in the “young universities” rankings this year by having “small pockets of research excellence in areas very focused towards the economy”.

However, the university also had a strong commitment to equity and equality, with 33,000 students and growing, and “that’ s going to put a limit on how high institutions like mine can rise in the rankings”.

Prof Lloyd who grew up in Glasnevin, studied at DCU, and became one of the world’s youngest university presidents three years ago at the age of 38, said institutions faced a choice of trying to chase narrow performance indicators or being “a responsible institution which has a moral obligation to allow people succeed”.

The concerns were echoed by Maddalaine Ansel, chief executive of the University Alliance, an umbrella group of UK institutions, who said rankings did not generally recognise measures to support disadvantaged students.

“They almost go the other way”, and support the imposition of higher fees, regarding them as a mark of quality.