The Rankings Myth

A grunt of discontent has echoed softly across Latin America due to the recent, and unsurprising, Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Only four Latin American universities figured in the top 400 (Universidade do Sao Paulo and Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil; Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and the UNAM in Mexico). Of course it would be nice if more of Latin American universities featured in this ranking, it is hard to argue against the noble goal of having elite institutions of higher learning. However, there are structural reasons that will prevent any influx of resources from actually moving universities up the ranking ladder. I want to make the case that these structural differences mean that being low in the rankings is not as important as it is being made out to be.
One must begin by seeing which universities figure most prominently in this ranking. Out of the top twenty universities, fifteen are from the U.S. Looking down the list, we see that American universities dominate the higher rankings disproportionately. I am going to compare the Latin American model to the American model because this latter one is the one that seems most successful according to Times Higher Education. Also – to clarify – when comparing models, I am writing about the normative ideal behind them, not about what actually occurs.
American higher education is most strongly associated with the liberal arts educational model. This educational model was born during classical antiquity and was created to give students the necessary tools to participate in civic life. The actual content of the curriculum has been modified from antiquity, through the Renaissance, to last year, because what people believe to be valuable to achieve this goal has changed over time. Albeit this gradual transformation in curricular content, the liberal arts curriculum’s goal has largely remained the same: the creation of a citizenry that can meaningfully engage in public life. That is not to say that the goal is that everyone becomes a civil servant, rather that everyone can become think critically and participate actively in the democratic process. This means that curriculums are structured in a way that foments critical thinking in a broad array of topics, not necessarily to give expertise in a single field. The goal is to learn how to learn. To do this, universities must be staffed with learning professionals. This means that all the professors must be dedicated to learning. That is precisely what happens, the student body is educated by an army of professionals of learning, people who have dedicated their lives to teaching and to learning about a particular subject. In essence, the structure itself requires that the faculty be made up entirely of scholars.
Higher education across Latin America has a different goal. The goal is not to create a citizen (in the classical sense) but to create a professional. This is why when you graduate you are awarded a professional license, a license that only someone who has graduated with your degree can receive. If you study in Latin America you will be ready to work at the moment of graduation, which is not the case in the U.S. (as a graduate of an American institution I say this with confidence). You do not need scholars to create professionals. Although scholars can and are useful for this goal, you can make-do with teachers who are practitioners in the field that they are teaching. This is what you see across most campuses in Latin America. Universities there are staffed by a mix of professionals and scholars. As a result, the research output of higher institutions is much lower than it is at universities of comparative sizes in the U.S. This does not mean that universities in Latin America are worse, there are many fine institutions that produce great thinkers (which is proven by the fact that hoards of Latin American students go abroad every year to pursue graduate education). It only means that the makeup of the faculty is very different.
The makeup of the faculty is determinative of your position in the ranking because 60% of a university’s score is derived from research (30% is research volume and 30% citation frequency). This disproportionately favors universities that house full time researchers. If the entire faculty is built by academics that are constantly publishing, then these schools will place higher in the rankings. Since the institutional goals determine the makeup of the faculty, they also have a direct effect on a university’s position in the rankings. If the goal is to train professionals, universities will not have as many researchers, meaning a lower ranking. This is the reason for Latin America’s lackluster performance.
Neither of the goals sought by either the Latin American model or the U.S. model is deontologically better than the other. Many graduates from the liberal arts system leave frustrated given that they know a lot but feel as if they have no skills that actually help them in the workplace. Meanwhile, graduating as a licensed professional may enable able you to quickly succeed at your job, but having never been exposed to other disciplines you may remain unaware of other types of work you may enjoy more or other disciplines that may shed light on the particular field in which you work. There are more costs and benefits associated with each model than the ones mentioned, this brief aside was simply to demonstrate that neither of them is fundamentally better than the other.
There are other reasons why institutions may push to have more and more productive researchers (which will lead them to better positions on the list). Perhaps one believes that more research will lead to greater technological or industrial advancement, meaning that the countries that house these institutions will compete in certain industries. Perhaps it is this belief that has driven Asian countries to seriously invest in research universities and has pushed their universities up on the list. This correlation between volume of research and technological innovation and economic growth may exist, or it may not. That is a question that can be empirically analyzed. The point is however that where you fit in the ranking is a result of the goals that each university, and each country, seeks to achieve. Rather than focusing on placing higher on the ranking, countries need to assess what objectives they have for their universities and if these being met. If a country decides to push for growth in research institutions, it should be because there are legitimate reasons for wanting this type of institutions. It should not be because having or expanding research universities will lead to more universities being higher on a list. A list that cannot truly capture the most important thing of all: where students are actually learning. A list that therefore remains ultimately meaningless.

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