by GARRY CARNEGIE and LEE PARKER
Global university rankings have recently come under the microscope in Campus Morning Mail. This comes at a time when many public universities seem obsessed with their selective positioning from a smorgasbord of available GURs.
Recently, Nicholas Fisk and Daniel Owens of UNWS drew attention to the notion of “us too” in the growing rankings world of metrics mania. They observed:
“Stock exchanges smooth variation through whole market barometers like the All Ords, while investors use a basket of currencies to diversity against volatility. Tennis, golf, rugby, and cricket have each an established international system that collates performance over a range of individual events. So why not academia?”
The answer may lie in the following reflections:
* public universities are public institutions each with a mission and a vision
* public institutions are publicly funded, not-for-profit charities
* public organisations serve the public interest for the betterment of society
* in the public interest, universities are accountable for their public benefit, including answering big questions and solving wicked problems.
* aggressive competition by public universities carries potential impacts on local, national and international public interest.
Following Fisk and Owen, the Australian Securities Exchange Ltd (ASX) All Ords is not a key performance indicator (KPI) of the ASX or of any corporation on the stock market but is a benchmark index for gauging the performance of the broader Australian stock market.
GURs are nothing but KPIs. A public university that has replaced an aspirational mission to serve society and act in the public interest with an objective “to be ranked in the world’s Top 100 universities”, has replaced a mission with a KPI.
This triggers at least two key questions. What is the public university’s charter? What is it doing to serve the accountability for its public funding and privileged charity status?
Moving to sports, in tennis and golf, players are ranked in some way, arguably commodifying them. Cricket and rugby are team sports, where teams are ranked on a league ladder. These teams are rarely constituted and operated as public institutions where there is a clear public interest to be served. Are any cricket and rugby teams in Australia classified as charities like the country’s publicly funded universities, rendering donations to these organisations tax-deductable?
The rankings of research media (e.g., journals) and institutions (e.g., public universities) contribute to the dumbing down of organisational culture. Staff are required to act instrumentally in pursuit of flawed metrics (KPIs) that have become ends in themselves (known as goal displacement) to prop up their university’s global rankings without regard to societal mission and impact.
The consequent corruption of university mission is thus driven by this developing mania-driven competition for a competitively advantageous position on the GURs. This is self-evident when we observe that “our universities have moved from a university model based on cooperation between public universities to one premised on competition between the same institutions” (Carnegie, CMM, October 6; also see Carnegie, CMM, September 1).
In a way, it reminds the writers of how a dog can be taken to a public park and be sent on a mission to return the same ball to the handler 50 times, then be taken home again and put to bed. Public universities are expected to provide more stimulus to staff and students and other stakeholders than potentially having a run around the oval with a ball in one’s mouth.
What has become a naked pursuit of university self-interest threatens the national interest and social fabric. This trend appears to be ripe for an inquiry into its present and future impacts.
So what? Already Australia has had an experience of GURs “stimulating organisational behaviour to the potential detriment of the higher education sector” (Carnegie, CMM, 16 September 2021). Based on recent collaborative research by one of the writers (Carnegie et al., 2021a, 2021b), this has involved public universities (1). Some GURs, such as QS, recognise an international faculty ratio and an international student ratio in their weightings for awarding places in the rankings.
These weightings incentivise public universities to pursue ever increasing income and at material financial and social risk, to source a greater share of income from “fee-paying onshore overseas students” as a proportion of “total income from continuing operations”. The consequent COVID-19 income interruption to Australian universities’ business development strategy is well known and continues.
Arguably, public universities have mimicked private sector corporations that finance their expansion through taking on increasing levels of debt (i.e., liabilities) in their capital structure (comprising both debt and equity) and increasing debt to equity and total liabilities to total assets ratios. The COVID-era financial and operating impacts on most public universities has been substantial: unprecedented in the Australian public sector. Yet investigations have revealed woefully inadequate Australian public universities’ management and reporting of financial and social risks associated with their growing reliance on income from fee-paying onshore overseas students.
In the face of all this, the idea of the incessant university pursuit of aggregate rankings resembles “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic”. It is little more than a fad, with an aggregate rank reflecting the limitations of each of the ingredient GURs. Yet they remain universities’ focus despite fair and reasonable criticisms aimed at their damaging effects.
“‘What we value’ is what we are; ‘what we measure’ is what we become” (CMM, 6 October 2021). The transformative (or corrupting) power of GURs has concerningly stimulated a self-interested corporate culture and dysfunctional behaviours on a scale not previously imagined in higher education. The warnings are clear.
Accounting as technical, social and moral practice as illuminated by Carnegie, et al., (2020, p. 72, 2021) allows us to better question and assess the impacts of accounting, including the calculation and use of a, to coin a phrase, “State Library of KPIs”, on which diverse and confusing GURs are determined (2). The transformative power of GURs is indeed premised on the transformative power of accounting (CMM, 31 October 2021).
Endnotes [shown as (1) and (2) above]
- Respectively available at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/AAAJ-09-2020-4906/full/html
- Refer to:
Garry Carnegie, Emeritus Professor RMIT University
Lee Parker, Distinguished Professor RMIT University and
Research Professor University of Glasgow