The proliferation of rankings, nationally and internationally, of colleges and universities influences their goals, functions and delivery of programs, according to Stephen Freedman, Ph.D., provost, and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Fordham. In an address to the meeting of Directors General for higher education (DGHE), under the Belgian Presidency of the European Union, Freedman said that ranking systems increasingly define what academic quality means, shaping institutions’ missions, activities and the systemic behavior of governments and businesses.

Stephen Freedman, Ph.D., Provost Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Freedman, a member of the administrative board of the International Association of Universities (IAU), delivered the presentation, “Transparency in the International Context,” on September 13, 2010, at the DGHE meeting in Château de Namur, Belgium. He said that the increasing number and popularity of ranking schemes had consequences far beyond providing prospective students with information about higher education institutions.

“Many prominent university ranking systems in the North American context have not come through accreditation bodies, but rather through major communication and media companies,” Freedman said. “The rankings attract readers and revenues. For institutions, rankings serve as marketing tools in a highly competitive environment to attract students and faculty and to secure funding in both the private and public sectors. Inequities in intellectual and financial resources are reinforced, and perhaps even created.”

Among other troubling issues Freedman discussed were that critical activities such as undergraduate teaching and opportunities for lifelong learning weigh little, if at all, in these rankings, and they can be very volatile, with small changes in metrics producing large shifts in position. Moreover peer appraisal can count for as much as 30 percent in certain rankings, giving reputational factors a disproportionate role in the perception of academic quality among institutions.

Freedman also said that rankings which emphasize research productivity are not necessarily the best indicators of academic quality. Even among research-heavy institutions, ranking systems based on citations are biased toward the English language and favor the natural sciences and medicine. One consequence, according to Freedman, is that such rankings under-represent institutions with strong research in the humanities and social sciences, disciplines in which publication rates are slower.

One trend that may bring more rigor to rankings systems, in the United States and abroad, is increased transparency among higher education institutions, Freedman said, lauding national and transnational efforts to strengthen higher education areas and to make their profiles more readily comparable and evidence-based. In the United States, Freedman credits the Obama administration for strongly advocating for more key data-driven metrics to strengthen accountability and transparency.

“Improved transparency tools benefit multiple stakeholders:  governments, policy-makers, institutions, and consumers,” Freedman said. “Students and their families are making important choices about higher education and should have access to reliable data on how best to direct their resources…. Educators need to pay careful attention to [employment outcomes], but key variables need to be weighted more toward academic quality metrics that acknowledge diversity and excellence and minimize ‘game-playing’ and data manipulation.”


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