by Garry Carnegie
In Campus Morning Mail on Monday, 30 August 2021, readers were provided a feature on yet another global university ranking regime, known as the National University of Taiwan or NTU ranking.
There seems to be an almost endless number of such global rankings of public universities. These lists are clearly not in decline and, in due course, if the number of such global ranking systems keep multiplying, we may need a mega ranking scheme to rank the confusing rankings! Surely, we can avoid this prospect. However, who and what would stop this occurring?
Is there a problem with the proliferation of global ranking schemes of our universities? The initial, “off-the-cuff” answer may be “no”. Another way to consider this question is to focus attention, for several moments, on the explicit mission and vision statements of public universities and the notion of “broad-scope accountability” linked to the purposes of public universites (Parker, 1996; also see Carnegie and Wolnizer, 1996).
What is the key purpose of our universities?
Public universities are expected under the legislation and constitutions which enabled their establishment to act in the public interest and for the benefit of society. For instance, the vision of the University of Sydney is concisely stated as “leading to improve the world around us”, while “the University of Melbourne’s enduring purpose is to benefit society through the transformative impact of education and research”.
The 2020 Annual Report of the University of Sydney also states: “in creating the first university in Australia, our founders recognised the power of education to change society (emphasis not in original). We hold that belief just as strongly today” (p. 3). The formal statements of mission and vision should not, however, be reduced to a lowest common dominator. Societal expectations of universities, as represented in mission and vision statements, portray a broader-scope orientation, specifically a macro-contributions approach to serving and supporting local, national, regional and global societies, as expected of our public universities, such as contributing to society by answering “big questions” and solving “wicked problems”. In September 2021, there is indeed no shortage of questions or problems of that genre.
Global university rankings, however, are predominantly based on a large set of metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs), which typically fall within the domain of the accounting profession and are usually devised and prepared by professional accountants. The use of such seemingly endless numbers of KPIs has been rampant in Australian public universities; they indeed form the basis for ranking assessments by global university ranking agencies.
The outcome is a concentration in our universities on “management by numbers” or the micro-measurement performance approach. Is this an issue or a problem? That may be a matter of personal perspective. What if the performance measurement and management expectations (read “targets”) have been aggressively set and are unrealistic? What if this scenario was to lead to unethical behaviours? What if academic staff in COVID-19 circumstances, for instance, are heavily engaged in teaching and learning and maybe struggling or even becoming ill under the weight of expectation stress?
In the process of what seems to be a passionate desire to move up in global university rankings (and never down), our public universities have arguably allowed themselves to be captured by rating agencies that prepare and publish global rankings of public universities. More critically, this “movement”, as it may also be termed, is best represented by a confusing array of global university rankings determined on typically copious narrow-based metrics or KPIs.
The micro-measurement approach has the potential to outmuscle the agenda of the broader-scope macro-contributions approach, to our societies, which is more aligned with institutional collaboration rather than institutional competition.
Australian public universities are presently facing a tension and cultural issues linked specifically to the difference between “what we value” and “what we measure”. These are indeed not the same. Given the evidently developing tension and the rising uncertainty in the sector, open and thoughtful discussions and debates on our university campuses appear to be warranted, if not overdue.
Arguably, never has there been a better time for enabling current and incoming future university leaders around the globe to stimulate vision, aspire collaboration, instil innovation, nurture scholars, develop intellectual capacity, inspire nation building, advance respect for and the sustainability of our planet, as well as engender cross-border/cross-region goodwill to help in creating a better world. Surely these key strategies can enable the flourishing of organisations, people, and our precious natural environment.
It is now apparent that intense, rankings-based competition between public universities, is emerging, and is likely to continue to emerge, as a by-product of the apparent appetite of at least some universities for the language of global institutional rankings, combined with often hard-driven, personalised KPI performance measured rhetoric.
This apparent fetish for global university rankings has the potential to be at least a distraction; these devices appear to be an artefact of competition among our public universities. The need for this competition is at least questionable. Across decades and centuries, competition has, perhaps curiously, been shown to mainly result in the removal of competitors! Is this possibly the end game for public universities?
There is also potential elucidation in this scenario for the discipline of accounting. Recently, Carnegie, Parker and Tsahuridu (2020, p. 69; 2021) proposed the following new definition of accounting for discussion and debate:
Accounting is a technical, social and moral practice concerned with the sustainable utilisation of resources and proper accountability to stakeholders to enable the flourishing of organisations, people and nature.
In short, accounting is not a mere neutral, benign, technical practice. Rather, accounting is pervasive, enabling and disabling; it impacts on human behaviour (i.e., our behaviour) which, in turn, impacts on organisational and social functioning and development. Therefore, accounting plays a key role in helping to facilitate such transformations of organisations and society.
There are key choices open to us to discuss and debate. This dialogue should preferably not be delayed and requires international academic engagement with respect to the impacts, intended and unintended, of global rankings in developing “competitive markets”. It would be of concern if our universities maintained a commercial focus on competitive self-interest, especially if this undermined their public interest modus operandi.
Emeritus Professor Garry Carnegie, RMIT University
 Parker (1996), see: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1835-2561.1996.tb00002.x and Carnegie and Wolnizer (1996), see: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/09513579610151962/full/html
 Carnegie et al., see (2020) It’s 2020: What is Accounting Today? (wiley.com) and Carnegie et al., (2021), see: https://www.ifac.org/knowledge-gateway/preparing-future-ready-professionals/discussion/redefining-accounting-tomorrow