Several weeks ago, Times Higher Education (THE) ran an excellent article titled "Measured, and Found Wanting More," discussing the phenomenon of university rankings. Author Phil Baty reviews the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for such rankings in an era when universities are increasingly central players in society, and what may result.
He quotes Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, as saying that rankings are “changing history, not just in higher education, but in all the social, economic, cultural and governmental sectors affected by higher education. In other words, the ranking systems – and the single worldwide higher education sector they embody and create – will change almost every sphere of human activity.”
Baty continues with a description of the various well-known rankings (one of them is offered by THE itself) and, to the credit of his publication for allowing him space to do so, shows how flawed they all are – statistically invalid, unwarranted assumptions, the list goes on.
Baty’s article joins another excellent work on the subject, "What’s Really Wrong with Business Schools?" [PDF] an academic paper published five years ago that I’ve cited a few times in the past (caveat lector – it’s long!). Authors DeAngelo, DeAngelo and Zimmerman not only assert, but back up with substantial data, that “unless they wake up to the dangers of dysfunctional rankings competition, US business schools are destined to lose their dominant global position and become a classic case study of how myopic decision-making begets institutional mediocrity.”
The authors’ focus is not only business schools, but on their competition for rankings managed by media companies such as BusinessWeek and the Financial Times. (Baty’s article focuses on university-wide rankings, and aside from THE’s own the, er, highly ranked ones are managed by universities or government entities. All the well-known b-school rankings are conducted by media companies.)
DD&Z pour scorn on the typical b-school rankings, starting with the obvious conflict of interest media companies face in creating such rankings (Researcher: “This data is worse than statistically meaningless – it’s misleading.” Editor: “But if we don’t make dramatic claims about the b-schools, even if they’re unjustified, we won’t sell advertising!”). Their discussion of media rankings makes the academic/government-managed rankings that Baty reviews seem like models of statistical rigor by comparison.
Living in China, one notices the degree to which the society, morphing at speeds evoking a Sichuan face-change artist, sometimes takes on the worst of the West – like auto-centric urban planning and lifestyles that have led to the explosion in cases of type II diabetes. Chinese b-schools crowing about their rankings has joined the list. Not content to be solely pandering to the proliferation of domestic rankings, a few b-schools in China are now boasting of their stature in Western rankings. Sort of like avian flu in reverse: this particular disease of competition for rankings started in the US, became endemic in the West and has now crossed to our side of the pond.
China’s b-schools can ill afford any more dysfunctional behavior. It’s commonly said that China will get old before it gets rich, reflecting the rapidly aging society. We see something similar in the b-school world here. The modern US b-school had 40 years of development, in a rich-country environment, before the first media ranking appeared. (BusinessWeek first released the virus in one of its 1988 issues, which became an all-time bestseller. Other media entities couldn’t resist the siren call.) China’s modern b-school environment got started less than 30 years ago, and many of the schools are still quite poor, so they are nowhere near as strong as their US analogs were in 1988. Yet the infection is already virulent.
As with any virus, the rankings virus weakens the b-school host, in ways that DD&Z outline in some detail. As China’s b-school environment is incrementally debilitated, the disease will retard China’s overall development, along with that of the b-schools themselves. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine in sight.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.